‘Next Swan Down the River Might Be Black’ has been described by playwright Sean Burns as a personal response to being sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Obi Chiejina concludes that whilst the subject matter may be unfamiliar to theatre audiences the quest for personal fulfilment the play explores, is rooted in English romantic fiction.
‘Next Swan Down the River might be Black’ takes the audience into a psychiatric ward where we are introduced to three young women, Zee, a student nurse, Kay who has bi polar disorder and Cerys who is depressive.
The tensions between the individual and the constraints of society are explored in a walled garden outside the restrictive confines of a psychiatric ward. Whilst welcoming some relief from the intense atmosphere of the ward, Kay’s playfulness is both an emotional barrier as well as an expression of self-determination from her monotonous existence. Kay wants to be liked by Zee, but views her as the ‘enemy’ because she is a psychiatric nurse and therefore part of the mental health system she is desperate to escape from. Kay’s inability to reconcile freedom with formal authority results in rapid emotional deterioration as her narrative veers between insightful comment and gobbledegook. Her frantic behaviour reverses the quest for emotional fulfilment: ‘The game always ends, oh yeah, the game always ends. No-one gets away, not in the end.’
If Kay represents nature in decay, Cerys symbolizes a flower in blossom. She merges the internal and external worlds by recognising Zee as a mental health worker and as an ordinary human being ‘trying to make her way in the big bad world’. Thriving under the sun and Zee’s watchful eye Cerys makes a ‘positive development.’ Unlike Kay, Cerys language is meditative and reflective: ‘…way sun catches the trees so hot in light this molten-ness just flowing over....’
Whilst Burns makes full use of nature as an emblematic theme in the characters of Kay and Cerys, Zee’s character lacks symbolic content. Most of her dialogue is dominated by references to an unnamed ward manager and a bureaucratic hospital system. She ruminates on the selflessness of maternal love but how she feels and who she is, is underdeveloped.