"Only human connection, tenderness, compassion, only love will win the day"
Image description - Two female actors in rehearsal, Fatima Niemogha and Shereener Browne who play Kem and Elaine/Elsie, presenting two women of African heritage experiencing the mental health system. The actor in the foreground is working script in hand and has her arms outstretched, speaking to someone she is clearly appealing to. The actor in the background looks on, concerned.
Here at Little Cog we love and admire the work of London-based Vital Xposure theatre company and are thrilled that they are premiering their latest national tour at ARC Stockton on 19 March. We invited the visionary artistic director of the company, Julie McNamara, to write a guest blog about what we can expect.
Julie McNamara here, Artistic Director of Vital Xposure and writer of all manner of mischief for the stage. We are about to tour a small scale production portraying two extraordinary stories of women defined as ‘mad’ in the societies in which they live. These stories are set two hundred years apart and yet so very many features of the way the women are relegated as flawed, hysterical, less valued in society, and how they are treated accordingly, are scarily similar. Little has changed.
I am the writer of ‘Monstrous Daughters’, which is my resurrection of a story lost inside the archives of Bethlem Royal hospital. This is a story driven by the records I pored over and more personally, it is driven by my own Mother’s ‘madness’; her grief and her experience of treatment after the death of her first baby. That story will be presented alongside ‘Medicine’, a gut wrenching response to the treatment of Black women inside the mental health system, presented for us by Fatima Niemogha and Shereener Browne who play Kem and Elaine/Elsie. Elsie is based on the treatment of Elsie Lacks, daughter of Henrietta Lacks - both Mother and daughter were experimented on during their lifetimes and afterwards, for the gains of modern medicine. Kem is a contemporary character, trying to negotiate the mental health system and stay sane in a benefits system led by bureaucrats. Elaine has been diagnosed so often, she’s lost confidence in her own intuition, her own judgement and in the voices of her ancestors trying to reach her through the veil and through a cloud of prescribed drugs.
I am profoundly touched watching the intensity, the energy and the vitality of our two actors who embody the stories in ‘Medicine’, a beautifully written first play by Omikemi; a London based, award-winning spoken word poet and performer.
As a writer, it can sometimes feel like a thankless, frustrating and isolating occupation – until we surrender the script to those in the rehearsal rooms who work their magic and lift it off the page. I feel like a ventriloquist, as part of my process is to read the script aloud, moving from chair to empty chair in my tiny wee studio at home. The magic of making theatre is when the creative team comes together, bringing their creative pulse, their unique skills and imagination.
So here we are, in week three of rehearsals and the atmosphere is electric. It has been thrilling to witness the careful nurturing, the coaxing and the finely- honed craft of Director, Penelope Freeman, breathing new life into the words I wrote too long ago. Lisette Auton plays a fabulously layered Mad Mary, rattling in with an energy that contaminates the stage as she veers between visceral grief and desperate cunning in her rabid search for the bones of her dead infant; a long-dead baby festering in the bowels of a medical museum. Lisette is playing opposite Eden West as Walter Riddle, who is superb as the grinning guardian of all things shiny in the wet collection of the museum vaults. These two weave their stories together so seamlessly on stage, it is hard to believe they only met three weeks ago. I can’t wait to see them in full flight in the forthcoming production due to open at ARC Stockton on March 19th.
Here are two powerful stories telling tales of brutal betrayal and dereliction of duty of care. I left the studio late today, feeling galvanised into action, determined to make changes, somehow, some way.
Only human connection, tenderness, compassion, only Love will win the day.
© Julie McNamara
Photo Credits: TG Film and Photography