Pembroke New Cellars, 7pm, Tue 5th – Sat 9th March, £5
directed by Charlie Bindels and Elizabeth Schenk
I know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen the flyers, read the publicity. You’re thinking ‘devised verbatim theatre’ – really? This is a play that calls itself a ‘project’. Sounds a bit poncy. Sounds, to be honest, like what thesps come up with when they’ve started taking themselves a touch too seriously.
And, thinking this, you wouldn’t be miles away from the truth. The performance is preceded by an introduction from the directors explaining that the show is built up out of the real-life words of those who have suffered from mental health problems, and that this a way of ‘breaking down silence barriers’ surrounding mental health. This impossible-to-miss explanation of the concept is repeated at the start of the actual performance by one of the actors, who worries about ‘tainting the words with my own emotions’. My heart was sinking at this point. However right the motivation behind this show might be, it looked like I was in for an hour of two of worthy over-emoting. How wrong I was.
It makes a lot of difference that the texts that are read out (literally, from pieces of paper scattered about the room) are texts in which personality shines through. ‘Tea is the answer to everything’ was a phrase that came up early on in this particular performance – the show is different every night – and a reproduction of an interview contained an account of the individual’s parents looking at her ‘like “Umm…sorry what?”‘.
At moments like these you’re blisteringly aware that these are real people’s words. This is not po-faced angst. It’s asking you to take mental health problems seriously not on the grounds that they represent some terrible, unknowable affliction, but because they affect rounded individuals – it’d be a cliché to say ‘just like you and me’ – who suddenly find themselves not themselves, unable to get on with the lives they want to lead. It doesn’t shy away from the tragic and terrible aspects but it does place them in a recognisable context: a shocking first-person account of a suicide attempt included the fact that the individual had been watching The Social Network earlier the same evening.
I wasn’t moved by this production. I never welled up or got shivers. I don’t think you’re supposed to. To exploit these people’s experiences just to deal the audience an emotional blow would be wrong, and it would miss the entire point of this kind of documentary theatre. Some of the least convincing moments were those that felt too acted: sudden shouting, or the points at which the actors addressed the audience directly, in speeches that were fairly clearly not entirely spontaneous, but tried to pass themselves off as such, one even ending with the phrase ‘I just felt that was something I had to say’. This is not a show that needs to be highly wrought, and it is not a show which needs to comment on itself. It’s at its best when what it’s doing is simply presenting all this collated material to the audience, in plain speech, and asking us not to feel but to consider. To listen and form our own opinions.
So yes, it’s not exactly a bundle of laughs, but it’s far from a vanity exercise. It’s the opposite of the kind of indulgent student theatre that, however slick, exists for no reason other than its own slickness. Snap Out Of It! is full of content that really means something, that is showing you what people out there in the world are going through. Mental health is a topic that is beginning to be discussed openly in Cambridge (see marvellous articles in The Tab – here, here and here – and in Varsity here), but more awareness is still necessary. Go and see this show.