As someone who has never experienced the torment of insomnia, I cannot comment on the accuracy of its portrayal in The Insomnia Project, playing until the 9th of August at La Mama Courthouse. Written, composed and directed by Natasha Moszenin, who writes that she has suffered from insomnia since she was a teenager, this piece combines song, movement and spoken word in an attempt to illustrate the experience for the uninitiated and the painfully familiar. I can say that the yawning, laboured breathing and deep rhythm of sound and movement used to represent the pulsations of sleeplessness in this piece made me yawn and think of bed where I know that my head need only hit the pillow and I will be asleep. But sitting in the theatre, watching four figures fight consciousness, feeling that yearning for sleep yet being totally enraptured and engaged with the scene in front of me, I felt I had a brief glimpse at the physical frustration and mental exhaustion of this condition.
The Courthouse is a brilliant choice of venue for this production and the set design served their purposes extremely well: four domestic spaces haunted by the sleepless, it was homely yet disjointed, intimate yet distant. Kate Kelly’s lighting design complemented the space and the idea of stillness and isolation in the quiet, darkened world of the insomniac.
But the centrepiece of this production is the music, both the songs written by Moszenin and the swelling soundscape that fills the space between the musical interludes. The songs were very accessible: ballads about flying, punchy pop tunes about killer moons, they were catchy and often didn’t refer overtly to insomnia, but the repetitive referral to images of night and sleeping and dreaming indicating the permeating, all invasive impact of sleeplessness. A number of songs, though, including the final number, Still, as Night, were quite overtly about insomnia and used rhythm and melody to express a tension and melancholy that was palpable to someone like me, who has no experience with the condition. The cast — Jai Luke, Clair Nichols, Fiona Scarlett and Andi Snelling – are all excellent singers, their voices rich and expressive with exceptional control.
The sound composition, too, was very effective. At times it was throbbing, pulsating, disjointed but also quite smooth, flowing like the waterfall that the cast, in chorus, imagine in an attempt to make their bodies and minds relax into unconsciousness. It was the aural embodiment of the contradictory forces that come and go in the experience of sleeplessness: exhaustion, frustration, alertness, lethargy.
The ongoing struggle between these forces were also well reflected in the cast’s physical presence and movement around the space. There were moments of stillness, where there was a momentary hope that they would find rest, shattered when you realised the eyes were wide open as they lay on the bed, or chair or floor, staring at the ceiling. There were moments when the tension and frustrations of exhausted bodies bubbled to the surface in heads thrashing on pillows, legs kicking blankets away, bodies dragging themselves across the floor. To me these scenes were reminiscent of moments when people tried to get me to wake up, not go to sleep, but so tangible was the frustration and torment that even I was able to get some idea of the pain of insomnia.
Particularly affecting were Snelling’s short movement solos. Her body would flow and the jerk, like that moment when you fall into deep sleep too quickly and are jolted awake. That feeling of flowing and jolting was a recurring theme that really involved the audience and gave great texture to the piece.
That texture was also present in the spoken word sections of the production, with moments of poetic chorus recitation giving way to sharp, jarring statements. At times, I felt that a few of these monologues were a little long, and that the pacing dragged a little. But there were also moments of explosive energy which provided incredible contrast, so perhaps the slower moments were deliberate to illustrate the two extremes of the insomniac experience.
Most effective was Moszenin’s use of breath, which (yes I’m going to do it) was breath-taking. Shallow breathing, frustrated puffs and -shuddering sighs puncture the would-be dream-like flow of the production. The language of a world where everyone else is sleeping and the waking must remain quiet, Moszenin and her cast use this breath to great effect.
But The Insomnia Project isn’t just about providing the audience with an opportunity to glimpse at insomnia, but also explore an issue that dogs many mental illnesses and conditions: prescription medication. Moszenin’s depiction of the health warning-laden pill packets and the cast’s hilarious yet harrowing personification of these potentially harmful yet ever alluring ‘treatments’ is both hugely entertaining and very worrying.
For someone who is a total stranger to the world of insomnia, this production was certainly eye-opening and extremely interesting. If you do go along, and I would encourage it, be prepared for a lot of empathetic yawning, and perhaps a small taste of the physical frustration of insomnia as the smooth music and soft tones encourage your body to relax, only to jolt it to attention moments later.