Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Almighty Sometimes

Photo by Brett Boardman
Griffin Theatre Company presents THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES, by Kendall Feavour, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst. 27July - 9 September.

THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES, by Australian writer, Kendall Feavour, was first presented at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in February, 2018. The Griffin Theatre Company is now presenting the Australian Premiere, Directed by Lee Lewis.

The content matter of this play is of interest in our zeitgeist. A young girl, Anna (Brenna Harding), at the age of eight has filled notebooks with writing that is extraordinarily advanced in its observational content - if not problematic in its violence. Is Anna unwell - mentally unwell?- or, a prodigy? Her mother Renee (Hannah Waterman), after Anna fails at a supposed attempt of suicide - throwing herself out of a one story window and breaking her arm - seeks consultation with doctors. After much interrogation, Anna, at the age of eleven, has being diagnosed with a range of mood and behavioural disorders and under the care of Vivienne (Penny Cook), a highly respected child psychiatrist, is put on a regimen of drugs.

When the play begins, Anna is now eighteen, she is being moved to an adult psychiatrist - as the medical system requires. Anna realises that what happens to her is now her prerogative - she is an adult. She has choice. As a child Anna could write. As an adult she can't. "Is it possible?" she asks:
I have been on those pills so long, I don't know who I am without them - if the things I say or do are because of the medications or in spite of it - but what I do know is that before you put me on them I could write. It's the only thing I know about myself that is true, or real, or in any way authentic - and I was ... good. Better than good - I've been thinking for a while now that maybe I could have, or might have been, or am, or was, some kind of - I don't know ... some kind of - (prodigy?)" 
Against the wishes of her mother and psychiatrist Anna withdraws from her daily drug prescriptions, goes 'cold turkey'. Her behaviour takes on a radical trajectory almost immediately, and a new drug regime needs to be found because chemically the brain, as we understand it, has been potentially changed.

The play reveals Anna's, the patient's behaviour, under traumatic stress and the ripple effect of that on those about her: firstly, her psychiatrist who decreed the original drug therapy and now is under pressure to find a 'formula' to hopefully re-medicate Anna, successfully; secondarily, her mother who made the original decision to medicate her child-daughter and now is having to begin care all over again, for her adult-daughter - wracked by the efficacy - ethics - of her first decision that she made on her daughter's behalf; and, lastly, Oliver (Shiv Palekar), a young man who had begun a relationship with Anna, who has had a history of caring for the 'disabled' - his dad - and may be now too empathetically 'burnt out' to continue this new relationship - he struggles with his need to survive as an individual and undoing his habitual instinct, training, to sacrifice himself for the less able.

Ms Feavour in her notes in the program tells us that she began writing the play in 2012 in response to what was being debated concerning the so-called medication 'epidemic'. That her generation, 'Gen Y, had the dubious honour of being the most medicated in history' and that there was little to no research on the long term effects of psychotropic medications, or any suggestion of how many of these young people would continue their treatment into adulthood - maybe, into perpetuity. The fear that her play of 2012 might be dated was wiped away when she discovered Gen Z, Anna's generation, was far more likely to be medicated than her own. - it is still, in 2018, a vital issue.

Each experience of mental illness is different and some like Anna's are profoundly confusing as to their 'correctness' of diagnosing and medicating, and yet, on the other hand, there are many young people who have undoubtedly had their lives saved by medical intervention. To apply a medication regime is fraught with real and ethical dilemma.

What is it that we know of how the brain works? Not enough? Enough? Here is the dilemma at the heart of this play.

Ms Feavour's play is an emotional and simplified exposition of this debate. I felt that the first half of THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES was too long-winded in its exposition and it was not until after the interval break that the play became at all absorbing. I kept, mentally, referring back to the Lucy Prebble play, THE EFFECT, which co-incidentally was premiered in 2012, in London (the same year that Ms Feavour began her writing of this play). For, its examination of these same issues were presented in a more interesting and complex construct and execution. (Both Sydney productions of THE EFFECT were underwhelming and misconceived - relatively shallow in their investigation of the potential of the writing. I was fortunate to see a lucid and challenging version: the original production at the National Theatre.)

The actors in this production are genuinely involved and convinced about the debate at the interesting core of Ms Feavour's concern and have a kind of zealotry, and give a clear sense of the 'argument' of the characters (and play) and have an 'intellectual' grasp of the emotional potential of each of their people. However, the effect of the performances, I felt, were relatively superficial - 'theatrical' - in their reality.

Mr Palekar, plays Oliver, an intelligent 21 year old blue collar worker, as a slightly dimwitted 13 year old in his tendency to semaphore physically - facially and gesturally - 'demonstrating', his character's responses to the challenges of Oliver's journey.

Ms Cooke, as psychiatrist, Vivienne, is impressive in her technical and energetic delivery of the text, but the professional knowledge and skill of the character seemed to lack studied security of depth to convince me of an organic passion for Vivienne's professional diagnosis and frustrations which gave an impression of the character's 'arrogance' rather than honest belief in Vivienne's decisions/actions.

Ms Waterman, as the Mother, Renee, chartered her journey with a secure arc of storytelling but tended to sit on the surface of an emotional empathy - erring sometimes into a kind of sentimentality - asking for a sympathy for Renee's bewildered situation instead of revealing the complex motivations for her original decisions and the sustaining of her suppressed traumatic stress disorder - there is artfulness on show but not plumbed raw experienced truths. No doubt, Ms Waterman knows of them but is, relatively, resisting revealing them as a living life force (of her own).

Brenna Harding, in the very difficult and challenging central role of the unstable Anna, plays with a fervour of raw energy and passion from the 'get-go' that cumulatively becomes a sweeping force that, in the small space of the SBW Stables Theatre, is overpowering and ultimately opaque in its garbled and noisy volume for involving belief - it lacks control, gradation. There is a kind of impression that the textually referenced films GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) and FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) were the basis for Ms Harding's 'entrance' in creating Anna - for the control of the prepared storyteller was relatively absent from the work, and was rather substituted with frantic generalised symptoms of the character combusted by an excited passion for the opportunity that the writer, with this Director, has offered her. The performance can be admired for its energetic commitment but is distracting in its passionate, unsophisticated skill blurrings. One can barely empathise with Anna, for the information of her text is 'drowned' by a powerful demonstration of emotional states. We can observe Anna is emotionally disturbed but cannot, easily, discern Why.

Director, Lee Lewis, places the work on a raised white stage with a Todd-AO 70mm curved wall and, simply, a couple of chairs and a table, Designed by Dan Pottra, and lit, by Daniel Barber.

The content of THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES is pertinent but not interrogated too complexly. This production, seems rather more interested in the emotional opportunities it can provide for the storytelling, overwhelming the intellectual arguments provided. We get to watch the effect of the ploys of the 'victims' of this contemporary epidemic practice of chemical medicating of unsocial behaviours, sometimes at the expense of the real persona of the individuals.

The Griffin are giving us a sensation in their theatre. Passion is all. I became more admiring of Lucy Prebble's THE EFFECT and its relative balance of compassion and scientific debate around this social/political issue.

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