Mental illness – and how to address it – remains one of the greatest challenges in the 21st century. UK-based Australian playwright Kendall Feaver is the author of The Almighty Sometimes, focusing on a young woman’s lifelong struggle with her mental health. Feaver’s play was awarded the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in the UK in 2015 and the world premiere production was staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre earlier this year. Its first Australian production, directed by Lee Lewis, is now playing Griffin Theatre Company’s SBW Stables until 8 September.
The Almighty Sometimes is the story of Anna (Brenna Harding), who’s been taking medication for several years for mood and behavioural issues. She’s recently completed high school and is contemplating what to do with her life. She tells her mother, Renee (Hannah Waterman), that she’s thinking about applying to university, perhaps in another Australian city or even in New Zealand. That’s something which is immediately concerning to her mother, who’s spent most of her daughter’s life trying to help her manage her mental illness.
More concerning, however, are the thoughts that are fuelled as Anna casts her mind back to life as an eight-year-old and rediscovers her prolific writing. Questions arise as to how these precocious stories may have signalled a prodigious talent. Even her psychiatrist, Vivienne (Penny Cook), admits she was “an exceptional little girl”. Anna believes that the medication is stifling her creativity and, as a result, holding her back from achieving her potential. After having spent so much of her life on medication, she wonders whether continuing to follow that regime is even necessary to maintain her health. Having reached 18 years of age, it is no longer a matter for her mother to decide. So, Anna goes off her medication, determined to understand who she is and unwittingly gambling with her life in the process.
Steered by Lewis’ expert direction, the Australian premiere of The Almighty Sometimes is one of the best productions to arrive on Sydney stages this year. Feaver’s beautifully written text is an astute, even-handed and utterly absorbing examination of the questions with which those suffering from mental illness and those closest to them must confront. That the play is the product of extensive research is certainly evident. However, this is not a piece that attempts to imprudently suggest solutions, rather it reminds us of the complexity of the issues and highlights the inexact science of current mental health treatment practises.
Harding is outstanding in her portrayal of Anna, whose performance never feels anything less than truthful. It is confronting to watch the character’s descent – Anna is so demonstrably tortured by her own mind – and Harding is completely focused and committed, giving what is perhaps one of the standout performances of 2018.
That said, the cast of four is uniformly strong. Waterman evokes tremendous empathy as Anna’s mother, desperate to provide her daughter a life characterised by some sense of normalcy. She’s been Anna’s protector since birth and is terrified by her daughter’s independence. She’s also frustrated by her powerlessness to intercede in the same capacity as she was able before.
Cook gives a natural performance as Anna’s psychiatrist, an invested healthcare professional but whose own motivations are sometimes opaque. Completing the cast is Shiv Palekar as Oliver, Anna’s caring boyfriend, who ultimately forces her to question how much of her behaviour can be attributed to her illness and what speaks to more fundamental traits.
Dan Potra’s simple set is a fitting backdrop for events. The predominant use of white makes it difficult to distinguish where the floor joins the wall – a fitting metaphor for the psychological struggles depicted on stage. The set pairs effectively with Daniel Barber’s excellent lighting choices, changing colour as the performance progresses and similarly reflective of mental state. Sound designer Russell Goldsmith’s compositions thoughtfully underscore and enhance the impact of events.
The Almighty Sometimes is a potent exploration of mental illness in contemporary society and provokes thought as to cause and effect, whether we’ll ever be able to authoritatively answer the myriad questions around diagnosis and treatment, and where normality ends and abnormality begins. This is highly recommended viewing.
THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 8 September, 2018
Times: Monday to Friday 7pm; Saturday 2pm and 7pm; Wednesday 5 September 2pm and 7pm
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross, NSW)
Tickets: Adult $60 | Concession/Preview/Seniors/Group 8+ $50 | Under 35 $38
Transaction fees of $4 for online bookings and $6 for phone bookings apply
Bookings: 02 9361 3817 or www.griffintheatre.com.au
The content of this show deals with mental illness and may be confronting for some.
24-hour NSW Mental Health Line
1800 011 511
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