I am not sure precisely when shows about mental health issues become more common-place in performance, but there has definitely been a surge in recent years. Whilst I am in essence in support of such a trend, there are elements of it that I sometimes find uncomfortable or which concern me. One thing that All of Me make abundantly clear is that this is the performer, Caroline Horton’s, experience of depression. It is not a universal experience, she is not speaking for all sufferers of the condition, she is telling her own story in a unique and creative way.
“a new myth built in the image of her own imagination”
In her shouted apology that opens the show, she apologises explicitly for making “another show about [her]” and in doing so, she owns her own experience, her story, her pain, her coping mechanisms – her own depression myth – and there are just so many myths surrounding the illness. Depression is cowering in a corner, alone, in the dark under a blanket right? Wrong. She may take her physical body to bed, but the story she tells is a conversation that takes place in her mind, a new myth built in the image of her own imagination.
Her depression is personified as her dark ‘Sister’, her sister who dwells in the desert of the Underworld, wears a long dark robe that hangs the height of several people (through inventive use of scaffolds and platforms), who wears a flamboyant crown of feathers and floats bare chested through the night, watching the sands of time fall at her command. She speaks through a vocoder that makes her sound growling and beast-like. She transcribes her pain into electronic music and Caroline dances by the light of giant disco balls to clear the smoke of the Underworld. ‘Sister’ is an original; powerful, terrifying and yet pitiable. She is lonely in the underworld, she wants to be visited regularly.
“his show isn’t bleak, it’s strangely beautiful”
In her opener she also apologises for her work being “unrelentingly bleak”, but this show isn’t bleak, it’s dark but strangely beautiful. ‘Sister’ is a character I will not forget in a hurry, like the show, she is extravagant and mysterious and anything but bleak.
There is also something even more subversive at work here, the flirtation with the idea that Caroline’s ‘Sister’ is a necessary part of her psyche. “We forget how to sit in the desert… it is terrifying to be in nothingness… the void needs to speak”, she muses in an emotional moment. The world isn’t ok, it isn’t easy to navigate and we’re not all happy penguins on the penguin slide (she has a toy you might remember from childhood to demonstrate this particular analogy). We all need balance, and sister is hers. She’s certainly less terrifying than the voices of calm in a soundscape which rises to a hideous scream.
Depression and suicidal thoughts are not simplified in this laid-bare production, which offers no easy way out, no recovery montage. ‘Sister’ will be back, and Caroline’s life a cycle of being fine and then not so fine, and that’s ok. That’s just what it looks like to see all of her, no apology needed.