He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata. 12 days after the Labour Government announced the 2019 Wellbeing Budget with a four-year $445.1m investment in mental health frontline services, the Basement Theatre, once again, presented a show concerning mental health. With a one-in-five diagnostic rate the issue is prevalent in New Zealand, but while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the issue with a humanity that has disrupted the concept of political action worldwide, our younger playwrights continue to struggle to tell such stories with any theatrical complexity.
Shortlisted for the 2018 Playmarket Playwrights b4 25 Competition, Natasha Lay’s MANIAC on the Dance Floor is not so much an “extravaganza” as it is music-inspired didacticism with a lesson that is never actually learnt. After the apparently mandatory opening number, performer Daedae Tekoronga-Waka introduces themselves as Anna, who, aided by back-up dancers Phillip Good and Adam Rohe (who also directs), is here to teach us about hardship, heartbreak, resilience, and recovery. There are, however, two fundamental problems with this premise as presented: construct and narrative.
Breaking the fourth wall is a perfectly valid convention, but not when it’s used in lieu of theatrical semiotics. If you’re being literal, as Lay’s script often is, you’re not making theatre, you’re on a soapbox. This problem is driven further by the fact that the line between performer and character are blurred due to the text’s inherently biographical and retrospective nature. We’re told where the show will end, so any dramatic irony and, more importantly, accountability, is lost, no matter how far the “unexpected” moments are pushed.
This is not, unfortunately, the worst misuse of metatheatrics. After soliciting an audience member to dance with them, Anna asks, “What do you think is wrong with me?” And with this informal request for a diagnosis, the show turns from a theatre piece to a hostage situation. The device is abused even further, as the audience are asked to read aloud, a line per person, the remainder of the script – much of which goes unheard. Audience interaction is one thing, but to put such onuses on them to drive your message home is not only lazy, but dangerous when considering the material.
Disjointed and jarring, sometimes driven by character, sometimes by time, others by nothing, Lay injects the narrative with adverbs and reactions on preconceived judgements from the audience. One result is that while Tekoronga-Waka moves well, they have no sense of rhythm when it comes to pacing dialogue and weighting the beats in the text. Gulfs of silence through which trains could pass suck the energy out of an already tepid opening night audience thanks to awkward pauses, weak punchlines, and slow musical fades.
The other result is even more problematic. No one likes to think they’re an asshole, but to correlate mental health issues with particular behaviours to which all are susceptible borders on the Marilyn Monroe attributed “If you can’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” quote often seen posted on Facebook by awful people attempting to justify themselves. This is not a misdiagnosis of the legitimate and commonly misconstrued hypomania-associated bipolar grandiosity, but a commentary on narcissistic condemnations, such as that of Good and Rohe, “I only used you because you make me look good”, and the character of James, who’s expression of vulnerability is labelled “emotional manspreading”.
But MANIAC is not entirely without care. Though burdened with a troubling text, Rohe, as both performer and director, orchestrates the tone throughout with a delicate hand as much as it allows. Lighting design by Spencer Earwaker is loud and gaudy, and captures the atmosphere attempted in the text perfectly, but the songs themselves are shoe-horned into the script, not born from the conflict within it. Hayley Robertson’s stretched-lycra set construction appropriately threads the strain of mental health within the piece, and choreography by Marianne Infante is simple yet effective, and uses the Basement Studio space well.
There is no universal remedy for mental health issues. And while community has been proven to have a direct correlation to our wellbeing, to directly advise one’s audience to simply accept help from others is a patronising takeaway, barely a step above the “You just need to get out of bed” and “You should get more exercise” tropes. While the gesture is genuine, and difficulty in doing so is acknowledged, without any theatrical conduit, it’s insulting at best and arrogant at worst, and one would think someone who would have undoubtedly been on the receiving end of such “advice” would have known better. It is not that Lay is wrong in her assertion, it is that she has not used the artistic medium at her disposal to make her point.