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Colin Hambrook drops in on the Edinburgh Fringe / 16 August 2009

I’ve been away for the past week, staying in Dunbar with friends. I thought I’d pop in on the Edinburgh Festival to see what disability-related arts I could find in the theatre section. From looking through the brochure it seems there is some mental health-related work amongst the enormous panoply of shows, exhibitions etc, happening this year.

So I made it into town to see Steve Walter’s An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) – billed as “a good-humoured, confessional, raw, honest, sometimes shocking account of breakdown, setting out to challenge common perceptions.” It did everything they said it would do on the tin – although from personal experience, I wouldn’t have called it ‘shocking.’ In fact, if anything, it impressed on me that maybe there is some hope that we are moving away from the punishment model of psychiatric care, that I grew up to fear and loathe.

Accompanied by singer/ song writer Steve Antoni An Acute Psychotic Episode (II) was a moving and powerful piece of dramatic storytelling. It was deliberately paced to take you on what felt like an urban train ride through the writer / performers’ life-story. It began appropriately with Brain Damage and Wish You Were Here – two songs written by Pink Floyds’ Roger Waters for and about Syd Barrett who died last year after 40 years of being labelled insane.

Steve Walter’s prose was filled with the pacing of hospital corridors and questioning of what happens when you become psychotic; how scary that sense is, of not daring to believe what your own mind is telling you.  It is very hard to put into words what that fear is like – when everything your mind and senses are telling you is true, you know rationally cannot be true. Where do you turn? How do you gauge reality? And if you are unfortunate enough to get locked up for having ideas others don’t agree with, how do you contain the frustration?

I felt not a little admiration for Steve Walter as I have personally been trying to write my own life story, in an attempt to make sense of it, for some years. It is not just that the writing down is incredibly painful, if you are totally honest. But there is also the fear of making yourself even more vulnerable, by opening up to others. Even those you think you can trust, cannot be trusted to use your honesty against you. Such is the stigma of mental health.  

I feel passionately that this kind of clear, concise storytelling, breaking through the silence – is needed more in theatre, and in the arts in general. I bought a copy of Steve Walter’s book Fast Train Approaching, which contains a lot of the poetry and prose from the theatre piece.

I’d recommend the website Making Connections Matter . Here Steve explains a lot of his search, research, poetry and ramblings on all things from spiritual awakening to a request to hear from others who have had experience of mental illness for a new book in the pipeline.

Keywords: mental health,poetry,psychosis,