Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the slaughter…

Please note…
The following review (if that’s what it is) discusses aspects of mental illness – albeit from my limited, yet intimate, exposure. It also contains far too many emphasized, italicized words and phrases; and some fabulous photographs by Helen Maybanks, courtesy of the RSC.


I am such a slow learner…. Although I have now seen the extraordinary RSC staging of Doctor Faustus eight times – and I have written before about why I thought I was so hooked (and not just because of its towering achievement and merit; and in all quarters): Only the darkness would remain: hence, perhaps, the addiction to… an unremitting nightmare way beyond hope: and which, to me, currently feels all too real… – it was a remark made by Oliver Ryan, at last night’s post-show Q&A, which finally pinned down its incontrovertible, particular (to me) compulsion. [This post is therefore dedicated, with both respect and gratitude, to Ryan; along with an acknowledgement that his insight led to it being written in the first place!]

He talked – and it felt as if it was from personal experience: although he is very widely read; with a deeply intelligent and enquiring attitude to the world around him… – about how one would even “run into a brick wall” in an attempt to stop an onslaught of anxiety: “you would do anything…”. There were additional references from other members of the company – including assistant director Josh Roche – to mental illness: especially depression (and its sometime manifestation as those pernicious panic attacks) and schizophrenia. [This is, after all, a drama where a pair of perfectly-matched actors play two interchangeable, twisted, warped-mirror aspects of the same dissevered soul; where we ourselves cannot distinguish reality, or if the action – and therefore hell – is all in Faustus’ imagination (or “discovered in his study”); and where delusion, introversion and dissociation are therefore omnipresent.]

All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.
– WH Auden: A Certain World

I thought, at first, that my obsession stemmed from the self-serving schadenfreude (an eighth deadly sin?) one succumbs to (instead of pity) when watching someone else literally go through perdition – combined with distraction, by way of complete captivation: ’Tis magic, magic that hath ravish’d me… – and, in a way, I was right. But I had also assumed, consequently, that it was the relief (a sort of dramaturgical intoxication) that emanated from such an experience which was at the root of my preoccupation. And I was wrong.


Having attended (and then helped deliver) a pain management course, fifteen or so years ago (which, in a way, emulated group therapy: there are many parallels with my current one-on-one CBT sessions), I should be (more) aware that it is the precious comradeship which develops amongst people with similar plights that is paramount. This not only creates a starting-point leading to those comrades coping better with their own suffering; but also gives them sorely-needed perspective. (In other words, there is legitimacy at the core of the two saws that “a problem shared is a problem halved”; and “there is always someone who is worse off than you” – not that the latter always bring comfort.)

What I’m trying to get at is that empathy – not sympathy – is crucial, here. And not only does this production (building on the miraculously equivocal text) refuse to judge Faustus in any way (or doppelgänger Mephistophilis) – each individual audience member having to draw their own conclusions (should they wish to) – it actually demonstrates (from my individual vantage point) an understanding of Faustus’ motives: even though (he may believe) he has only himself to blame – both for the predicament he is in; and his inability to fully commit to it. Such culpability fuels the resultant doubt and regret that become exponentially more substantial – as Marlowe’s poetry grows in intensity – the closer midnight approaches. But – from my experience and research (including a twenty-five page essay for my therapist on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that has caused my slippery struggle with depression to slither from my grasp) – such conviction in your own failings, your own liability, comes with the territory.

In other words, each viewing is, for me, a form of therapy.


As with schizophrenia – which may be confused with, or uninformed shorthand for, dissociative identity disorder (DID) – therapy, as a word, I think, is easily misinterpreted: in this case, as (treatment leading to) a conclusive cure. However, in actuality – particularly with regards to mental illness – therapy is an ongoing, possibly never-ending, process (unlike this theatrical run). And, although it should lead to improvement, it is unlikely to be a complete emendation. [This misapprehension is equivalent to a statement that “I am better” resulting in the addressee – probably from a lack of knowledge of the complexities of my disability – inferring that I am wholly recovered; or have been mended, restored to full health. (Physiologically and neurologically, this is impossible.) Yet what I am trying to impart is that I am – however one would wish to quantify it – just having a good day (or, typically, some much smaller portion of time – perhaps the length of a good play, or concert…).]

Additionally: therapy does not happen in discrete ‘chunks’; nor is it passive – for either therapist or patient. (Nor does it involve me reclining on a chaise-longue!) In fact, it is bloody hard work; and can be extremely distressing. [In Faustian terms, you (will probably, at some stage) have to confront your demons. Mine, however, do not look like a cross between Charlie Chaplin and a droog: rather, they arrive all too swiftly on four wheels….]

People who are willing to do assignments at home seem to get the most benefit from CBT. For example, many people with depression say they don’t want to take on social or work activities until they are feeling better. CBT may introduce them to an alternative viewpoint – that trying some activity of this kind, however small-scale to begin with, will help them feel better.


Unlike the above truisms, I am of the opinion that Nietzsche was talking out of his Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen when he said (or more likely wrote) “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. It may apply to some – but not me; and not many that I know of who have also experienced serious disruptions to their lives (somewhat ironically including the man himself).

Doctor Faustus, though – and it has just occurred to me that the clue is in his title… – has vastly improved my quality of life with each visit (too simple a word, really for what I described in my original review as “the [utterly remarkable] very definition of theatre”). In between whiles, the ensuing penning of critiques and necessary accompanying self-interrogation (“assignments”, if you will) have helped enlarge the drama’s therapeutic – in my dictionary, an adjective aptly “relating to the healing arts” – potency. (That which thrills us, makes us stronger.)

I appreciate that many simply go to the theatre to be entertained; or [snobbery alert!] to vaunt the intellectual prowess that is evidenced by managing – just the once, Mrs Wembley – to sit through three hours of Shakespeare, or seventeen of Wagner (even if they arrived ten minutes late for their mid-row seats; drifted off occasionally; coughed and whispered in all the quiet bits; increasingly gazed at their watches in despair; fanned and/or dropped their programmes; rustled in their handbags for sweets; fired off a few Tweets; applauded, or worse, joined in with, a famous quotation, mid-soliloquy; nipped out to the loo; or appeared to be attempting several different yoga positions per scene…). I don’t.

I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!

And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have experienced some of the greatest plays ever written, performed by some of the greatest actors ever born – the pinnacle of which, of course, is Doctor Faustus, about to end its long run in one of the greatest theatres I know. And my life would be so much poorer for that lack; and I would not know that, in the blackest depths of my despair, there could be – there was – salvation. So I will – I must – continue to go: to discover yet more reasons for going. And – of course – to be entertained…!


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