Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: 'Still Ill' at the New Diorama Theatre, 4th November 2016

In Still Ill, Morrissey asks one of the classical biggies of philosophy "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?" Are we creatures of intellect or instinct? Are we beholden to our flesh? Do we fool ourselves when we imagine transcending these prisons of bone, sinew and blood? 

It's weighty dramatic territory, but there's few more appropriate prisms to examine it through than psychogenic disease, specifically functional neurological syndrome disorder (FNsD). 

FNsD is a condition in which you begin suffering neurological symptoms like unexplained weakness, seizures or loss of muscular control (to name but a few). If you research these symptoms online, the first thing that's going to leap out at you are two terrifying words: brain tumour. So you make the trip to the hospital and end up nervously lying inside an MRI. When the results come back, the doctor happily explains that there's no physical abnormalities in the brain.

Awesome! There's nothing wrong with you! But even after the all-clear the symptoms persist, maybe even get worse. There's something wrong with you, but the doctors say you're completely fine. Suspicions start to build that you're malingering: making the whole thing up for attention. After all, there's nothing wrong with you, and 'nothing' can't be treated. And yet you're in constant agonising pain. 

Up and coming young actor Sophie (Sophie Steer) finds herself trapped in this cruel medical oubliette. The condition first rears its head as she's playing a doctor in a cheesy medical drama. During a stressful day on set her left hand contorts into a paralysed claw. Terrified, she consults a doctor who injects it with botox; it's miraculously and instantly cured. Problem is, botox only starts working after two days.

As the months progress things only get worse. Sophie begins suffering frequent seizures, chronic pain and even loses muscle control in her leg, confining her to home. The once ambitious young actor is reduced to listlessly watching TV and researching her condition online, each possibly diagnosis inevitably leading down a medical dead end. She grows depressed. Her brother Mark, initially sympathetic, grows suspicious and resentful. All too soon, life has turned to shit.

Still Ill is a marvellous bit of drama: stuffed fulla dramatic creativity, top notch performances and lots and lots of interesting medical information. It's an hour and forty minutes straight through, yet manages to avoid being dull by deploying a tonne of contrasting tones - running the gamut from broad comedy right through to bone-chilling medico-horror.

Sophie Steer is the star attraction: pouring every last drop of her soul into an incredibly physically and mentally demanding role. It's pretty breathtaking stuff, the character going on an odyssey to the depths of frustration, pain and misery. Sounds pretty heavy right? Fortunately it's a journey leavened with humour, and saved from sentimentality by some pretty severe probing of the fourth wall.

Mind you, Hamish McDougall and Harriet Webb are no slouches, believably inhabiting a variety of supporting characters. They fill in the dramatic blanks, constructing a world of helpful yet emotionally distant doctors, snippily caricatured TV production crews and support ground attendees. 

On top of all that, the show is liberally studded with countless imaginative bits of staging, set design and lighting. Characters reach 'through' television sets, conduct brain surgery on a cauliflower, cover the stage in discarded medical supplies, insert a catheter up a cucumber cock or conduct mock Skype sessions through on-stage cameras. In addition, there's some seriously smart blocking - at one point confining Steers to the far corner of the stage, isolating her even within the set.

But the performances and theatrics are all in service to director James Yeatman's masterful control of tone and pace and on-stage live musician Zac Gvirtzman. Still Ill is a show of lulls and swells, snowballing from calm to complete sensory overload. These moments press you back into your seat, the drama almost symphonic as it reaches a series of crescendos that perfectly simulate the stress, frustration and misery experienced by the lead character.

Since watching Todd Haynes' excellent 1995 film Safe, I've been fascinated by psychogenic and psychosomatic illnesses; having spent time reading about medically strange conditions, like electromagnetic hypersensitivity, Morgellons and multiple chemical sensitivity. They present a curious paradox: when external or physical causes have been empirically ruled out, how do you explain a a patient that their life is ruined purely because of their malfunctioning psyche? How can you deliver that information without passing the blame onto them. It's easy to discount these conditions as 'all in the mind': these people are experiencing pain, and medicine is largely failing its obligation to sooth and treat it.

This is the second great play I've seen this week named after a Smiths song, the other being the excellent Rubber Ring (the obvious lesson is to only go see plays full of Moz references). Still Ill deals with this tricky (and unfortunately still fringe) medical subject with style, grace and empathy, making for an enormously affecting bit of theatre. You leave with Morrissey still jangling around in your head, still asking "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?"

I dunno.


Still Ill is at the New Diorama Theatre until 19th November. Tickets here.

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