Review by Bella Wellstead
Jim is an actor on the movie set of his own life. He is a novice skier flying uncontrollably down a black run. Or at least that’s how his depersonalisation disorder makes him feel. As part of a government initiative to get mentally ill people off benefits and back into the workforce, Jim is hired as the pepperoni placer on a pizza-making assembly line. Exhausted by the little man in his head, and inspired by Aki Kaurismäki’s 1990 film ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’, Jim decides to end his life. Or at least, he decides to hire a hitman to do it for him. As the impacts of Jim’s depersonalisation worsen, Kaurismäki’s dialogue and narrative bleed into his own life, blurring the boundaries between real and imagined, between truthful and fictional. Written by Welsh playwright Alan Harris and directed by New Ghosts Theatre Company’s Lucy Clements, FOR THE GRACE OF YOU GO I grips and unsettles in equal measure.
Set design by Monique Langford and Kate Ingram is masterfully minimalistic, emulating a film set. Lime green walls, lime green floors. Lime green fold out stools and lengths of lime green ribbon hanging down from two square holes in the wall. Between the holes run three short, silver conveyer belts that feed into one another. Pizzas, ski poles, glasses of wine – they all travel out of the wall from the rightmost hole, along the square shape of the belts, and back into the wall on the left. Three black cameras stand, exposed and spindly, on and around the stage. Their perspective is projected onto the wall above the conveyer belt and shifts throughout the show.
The set effectively establishes the divide between how Jim experiences the world around him and how the audience does. There is a moment in which Jim mimes skiing in the centre of the sparse stage, beanie on his head and ski poles in his hands. When he is filmed from behind, the footage cast on the wall is not of a man alone in a lime green room. It is of a dark, flickering figure winding precariously through a blizzard.
Lighting design by Alice Stafford sets mood and scene brilliantly. A queasy, bright, white wash illuminates the assembly line. A pair of comforting warm spots engulf Jim and his new friend Mark as they watch the opening scenes of ‘I Hired a Contract Killer’. These contrasts constantly bring us back to the perceived artificiality of Jim’s world.
As Jim, James Smithers is meticulous and considerate. He flits seamlessly between a delicate detachedness and the confident command of a film director. His light, flighty physicality is engrossing, and scenes mirrored from ‘I Hired A Contract Killer’ are infused with grace. Jane Angharad’s Irina typifies the capitalistic conflict between profit and humanity. Her portrayal of reserved professionalism is impressively nuanced, infused with an undercurrent of empathy. This complicates her moral position. While the audience recognises her inherent desire to help others and complex relationship with mental illness, her exploitative workaholism prevents them from fully empathising with her. Shan-Ree Tan’s Mark is cocky and emphatic. A sense of mystery surrounds him throughout the play, and Tan resists retreating into the brutality that is often used to portray characters like Mark.
Mark is a character whose typecasting risks trivialising mania and demonising the people who experience it. He is Irina’s husband, a former member of the defence force, and a writer. When it is revealed that his recent move from Cardiff to Wrexham has made him miserable and inspired him to come off his mental health medication, the tidiness of this façade begins to splinter. His marriage to Irina is tenuous, he regrets never having killed anyone in action, and he hasn’t written an article – nor made even a single penny – in months. He is reckless and self-destructive, and threatens to endanger the people around him.
At its core, FOR THE GRACE OF YOU GO I is intended to be an indictment of the mental health support – or rather, lack of it - provided by government services. So much of the writing addresses the folly of navigating interpersonal relationships. The farce of seeking support in a neoliberal context, obsessed with productivity. As such, it is disappointing that Alan Harris plays into the trope of the dangerous mentally ill person, even if Mark’s violence is never enacted against others. I want to love this show – with its clever, detailed production and the precision of its performances – but unfortunately this representation leaves me disheartened.
Image Credit: Clare Hawley