JOYCE MCMILLAN on HOWLING at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and ASSESSMENT at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.10.14.
Howling 3 stars ***
Assessment 3 stars ***
IT’S DIFFICULT TO IMAGINE any creative work that has no bearing at all on the mental and emotional state we’re in; so it’s perhaps not surprising that the annual Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival has evolved into such a wide-ranging, magpie-like event, sweeping a whole range of film, performance, music, talks and exhibitions across Scotland into its generous embrace. Theatre forms a small part of this huge event; but this week, artists based at the Arches in Glasgow have created two small but fascinating theatre projects, both dealing – in very different ways – with definitions of madness and sanity.
Drew Taylor’s Howling – seen briefly at the Traverse this week, before it returns to the Arches on Tuesday – is a fascinating new one-hour stage poem based on Allen Ginsberg’s legendary 1955 performance-poem Howl (“I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”), but designed as an instant first response to Scotland’s state of mind following last month’s independence referendum.
Performed script-in-hand by Taylor himself with actor David Rankine and slam poet Leyla Josephine, and accompanied by music from Julia Doogan and Jennifer Hamilton, the piece is provisional to the point of disorganisation, determined to allow for both “yes” and “no” voices, and sometimes hauntingly concerned with the wider social and economic backdrop to Scotland’s big decision, the bleak landscape of long working hours, low wages, and high personal debt through which so many now struggle. And if the text sometimes seems a shade unprocessed an under-rehearsed, it also has a reckless boldness and immediacy that makes it a hugely vivid experience, played out on a stage carpeted with stray pieces of red tartan, as if in a hurried attempt to construct – or deconstruct – a new and viable post-referendum Scottish identity.
James Leadbitter’s Assessment, by contrast, is a very simple and strangely moving experience, in which the “audience” sit for half an hour at tables in an examination hall, and complete an extended questionnaire about their mental state. The questions are all taken from standard assessments of mental wellbeing; no-one looks at our answers, and the diagnosis we receive is the same for everyone. Yet this tentative experience is strangely effective in compelling us to consider just how arbitrary the dividing-line between sanity and madness can be; it’s hardly a show, but it is an event – and one that goes to the heart of the issues which this unique festival tries to raise, this year and every year.