Give Me Your Love, the story of a veteran of the war in Iraq experimenting with MDMA as a treatment for his PTSD, is part of Ridiculusmus’ extensive investigation into innovative approaches to mental health. Ridiculusmus (David Woods and Jon Haynes) have been producing work on the international stage, mainly in the UK and Australia, for over 20 years and have developed a reputation for innovative and provocative theatre that uses humour to engage audiences with serious issues. But Give Me Your Love illustrates that their approach to this issue is never one-dimensional.
In their approach to mental illness, in this case PTSD, Ridiculusmus reveal the layers of stigma that surround mental illness, and demonstrate just how far we have to go to create support systems that serve those who live with mental illness, rather than appease the communities in which they live. While public awareness and acknowledge of mental illness has progressed significantly in recent years, Give Me Your Love focuses on the treatment of sufferers once that acknowledgement has been made. It presents a flawed system that prescribes one-size-fits-all approach to mental illness, blanket treatment practices that places the impetus on the patient to engage with treatment, rather than finding a program that responds to their individual needs. People are quick to prescribe pharmaceuticals or therapy without acknowledging the nuances of the individual’s experience. If the individual is resistant to any treatment, it is often seen as the fault of the patient, rather than the treatment. They’re not ‘committed’ to getting better.
Zach Williams, a former Private in the Welsh Guards Regiment, is struggling with a trauma sustained during his tour in Iraq. Despite ongoing pressure from wife Carol and friend Ioan, Zach never reveals the true nature of this trauma, and has confined himself to a large cardboard box in a dilapidated apartment. The opening scene, with Zach’s voice emanating from the box and conversing with Carol’s disembodied voice wafting in from some offstage space, is a perfect image of isolation and disconnection between sufferers and carers. More than that, it speaks to the largely abstract, impersonal, disembodied way that we as a society talk about mental illness, engaging with awareness campaigns and fundraisers but not wanting to engage face to face with those who struggle with mental illnesses. Accusations of selfishness and laziness are thrown around, but when Zach brings up a treatment plan he would like to try – using MDMA – he is told that it is dangerous and irresponsible.
Ioan is much more open to the idea, and provides Zach with a pill. But although Ioan’s engagement with Zach seems to be more patient and sympathetic, we see a frustration seep through his tone as Zach won’t open up to his, both physically as he keeps the door to his apartment chained shut, and emotionally, as Zach tries to play the good patient by revealing false traumas. There is an expectation for Zach to act a certain way, for him to present his illness in a digestible form and when this is not forthcoming his loved ones find themselves pushing back, teetering between cajoling and condemning him.
Ridiculusmus have used the form of the show itself to evoke a similar response from the audience. Right or wrong, walking into a theatre we tend to have certain expectations concerning character arcs, story resolution and a tangible connection with the actors. Ridiculusmus shatters each one of these expectations. Even with MDMA, Zach isn’t able to make much progress without an effective support system, and he ends up in much the same place as he was at the beginning of the play, hiding inside a small, dark, enclosed space, both mentally and physically. We never see Zach’s face as he stumbles around the stage in his box, nor do we see Carol, who makes no attempt to reach Zach, or Ioan who can only fit an arm through the gap allowed by the chains on the door. We never see more than an arm or a leg of the major characters, and yet Give Me Love remains hugely affecting, with both heart-warming humour and moments of absolute helplessness as Zach wrestles with his box and his demons. It proves that the parameters set by expectations, whether of theatre or of those struggling with mental illness, are not gospel and that the most effective forms, of communication or treatment, are developed by those most intimately involved in the issue.
The performances from Woods and Haynes are outstanding. On a technical level they had excellent projection, their accents were consistent and strong. Haynes was simply superb in as both Ioan and Carol, particularly during a conversation between the two characters, his differentiation between the two was sharp and effective. Woods’ performance as Zach was incredibly engaging considering we only ever saw his legs and his fingers peeking through the gaps in the cardboard.
His ownership of that character and his world held the production together. It was impossible to look away. The use of hand gestures, appearing out of holes, through cracks in the doorway, was surprisingly dynamic. One of the most affecting moments was a shootout between Ioan and Zach, guns made of fingers firing rapidly, ducking between different holes in the box, between the top and side of the door, which spoke volumes about the way Zach engaged with the word, combining a wonderful childish innocence and a troubling tendency to revert to violence.
Jacob Williams’ set design reminded me of Trainspotting but was the perfect space for this stry to play out: it was tailored to Zach’s new box-based lifestyle, and the detail of the space was wonderfully engaging. The box was such a vital prop/costume element in the piece and almost a character in itself, shielding Zach from outside eyes but also providing a unique canvas for him to use to communicate.
Richard Vabre’s lighting design worked with the space extremely well, complementing the dull, numbing space of the apartment. There were also moments of extremity that gave the audience a small taste of what Zach may have been experiencing in moments of compounded stress. The extended strobing effect was quite difficult to watch, but I imagine this was to facilitate greater empathy for Zach’s experience. Sound designer Marco Cher-Gibard’s use of dialectic sounds via the cell phone was excellent, paired perfectly with abstract, unnerving soundscapes during the psychosis and soothing piano in moments of calm.
There was only one moment of psychosis that I didn’t fully engage with, and as it was a one off event rather than an ongoing motif I found it stuck out as a weaker moment in a very strong piece of theatre. But I wouldn’t count that as a mark against Ridiculusmus, because it’s not about what does or doesn’t work for the audience as a representation of mental illness, but what is most applicable for the story or the performer. It’s about broadening representation, broadening the options available to people looking for help, and in Give Me Your Love Ridiculusmus have certainly presented a much more inclusive, intimate and innovative portrait of the relationship between those of suffer from mental illness and those who seek to help them.