Gods and Kings is a story about mental health, and mental illness. But it’s a story about a man, about a person. It’s a story of diagnosis, and about the practical (and impractical) elements that go with it. But also, about the mind that’s affected. It’s about asking what does diagnosis really mean, and also what does mental illness really mean?
Written by Paul Whittaker, it tells the story of his bipolar diagnosis as a young man. Reflecting back on childhood, as well as telling the story of diagnosis, telling friends and reconciling himself with this ‘new’ version of himself, it’s a powerful exploration of mental health and its impact.
We meet Paul as he gets his diagnosis, in a beige room in a Doctor’s office, and follow him as he discussed his medication, and experiences the impact on his university and personal life. It’s a powerful, intensely personal reflection on the trauma of diagnosis, and the question of mental health and identity.
It is a powerful piece of writing from Paul Whittaker which manages to offer a fine balance of intensely personal, but also universal experience. The ethos of his company (set up with co-director Tamsin Griffiths) is that everyone will be affected by mental illness at some point – directly or indirectly – and in the writing and telling of this story, that universality is communicated.
Whether it’s frustration with medical professionals, fear of disclosure, affect on work life, personal life and the very personal question of ‘who am I and what is my illness’ there are elements that almost everyone will recognise.
Important also in Whittaker’s story is that it takes place around 20 years ago, and is an important reminder in our increasingly open society, of how different mental health stigma was at that point. Whittaker offers a powerful account that doesn’t shy away from the difficult elements of the story, but equally is a funny, engaging and well-written piece of theatre.
There is obviously a certain ‘insider’ feeling to watching this play at The Riverfront. The references to Newport – admittedly an older Newport that not everyone will remember – adds a certain resonance to the story. Sometimes local references can take a story out of the moment, but here the familiarity is both comforting and jarring.
Comforting, because it feels like a familiar story, in a familiar setting. Jarring because it feels too close to home, too familiar. A reminder, as the company name tells us, that all of us are affected by mental health. And the added layer of familiarity by citing locations just outside the room brings this home.
Rob Bowman, who has been attached to the project from the start, offers an engaging and incredibly human performance of Whittaker’s story. There is a huge challenge associated with bringing any real person’s story to life, particularly one so personal, and particularly with the writer in the room as co-director.
What Bowman appears to do is tread a fine balance between dramatic performance and honesty. It’s a powerful performance that honours the dramatic, brilliant theatrical writing of the text, but also always keeps the honesty of the story close to the surface.
It’s a mammoth undertaking and one that Bowman rises to admirably – we are engaged with Paul from the outset, we care about him, but we also see his ‘bit of a dick’ side- and Bowman balances this, allowing the audience to make up their own mind about Paul.
This version of the play incorporates Sami Thorpe as an actor/interpreter. Performing parallel to Bowman, she interprets the monologue into BSL. She is also part of the performance, acting as a parallel storyteller to Bowman. It’s important that the company have chosen to incorporate a BSL performer, from an access point of view, and an acknowledgement of BSL’s rich storytelling power as a language.
It also feels like a nod towards the fact that disabled people – particularly those with hearing or sight difficulties – can often be left behind in mental health care, more so than others.
Given that this is Paul’s story, it’s understandable that it wasn’t possible to explore this more fully. However, it still feels like a slightly missed opportunity, or an unfinished element in the play. Although a brilliant performance to watch – the BSL does feel ‘tacked on’ and therefore not truly ‘integrated’.
It’s a tough line to tread in terms of integrated access, within a performance, but sometimes if full integration creatively isn’t possible, more ‘traditional’ access elements are better. There is a sense that Thorpe is playing a character/facet of Bowman’s – that they somehow should be ‘one’ or elements of the same.
But it’s an element that isn’t fully explored in the direction. They don’t fully interact or seem aware of each other. Within the theme of gods and monsters of the ancient world, she could be an element of some unseen spirit – or an element of his illness. The groundwork is there for this but feels like it needs to be pushed towards a fuller realisation.
Thorpe is, however, an engaging performer and anyone with BSL knowledge will be rewarded and find the quirks and additions that her performance adds to the written/spoken text illuminating.
Even those without BSL knowledge can gain from – and understand the language further – through this performance, and that is by far the most important thing. It feels like an excellent stride for access, and integration, and an illustration of how access and performance can be as one with even a little creative thinking.
This piece was also an illustration of when ‘wrap around’ elements of a play are necessary. A post-show talk can sometimes feel like either a ‘tick in the box’ designed to please an ‘education’ angle of a funding application or an indulgence, a chance for creatives to wax lyrical about how great they are.
Here however it felt like a necessity. The company had assembled a mixed panel – from mental health sector professionals, to the Assembly Member Jayne Bryant, alongside the creatives behind the production.
While talking about the process – and significance – of putting this story on stage formed part of the discussion, a much more important thread of discussion emerged.
From people sharing their stories, and connecting with others in the audience, to asking questions of those involved that might be seen as ‘awkward’ or ‘inappropriate’ elsewhere. That these conversations clearly carried on outside in the foyer, and hopefully beyond is again an illustration of the importance of the piece.
What this also illustrates is the importance of going beyond what we see on stage in tackling issues of mental health. Yes, it’s all well and good to put ‘trigger warnings’ on shows, but these mainly help people avoid things they will find too challenging.
What of those who choose to experience a show like this which has a profound impact on them? It’s unfair, perhaps even irresponsible for shows to cast audiences directly back out into the cold (especially on a rainy Newport night).
And what Four in Four’s approach as a company shows, is that if you truly want to engage art with issues like mental health, we need to go beyond just stories on stage.
Gods and Kings is first and foremost an excellent piece of theatre. And that is something that shouldn’t be obscured in talking about its wider importance. Whittaker has written a powerful, and brilliant piece of dramatic work. And the simplicity of the direction allows this and Bowman/Thorpe’s performance to communicate with an audience.
Storytelling is consistently undervalued in contemporary theatre, where bells and whistles and ‘concepts’ often outweigh stories. But that is where the power in this piece lies, in being given a chance to hear this story.
And that’s where the wider importance lies – in opening up that story, and hopefully giving others a chance to share theirs.