The Black | Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu

The Black is one of the most interesting works of theatre to be performed at the Basement in 2015.

Heartfelt, honest and creative, it exposes the dark side of depression by using a variety of different storytelling forms and for the most part, these work well together. It’s a personal story written and performed by Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu (Cleo) along with Kate McGill (Sondra) and Julia Croft (The Black).

The hour long multi-media work charts the onslaught of depression; it’s debilitating effects on an individual’s mental, emotional, physical and psychological health; the visits to the therapist; the internal battles; the love affair with sleep; and finally the suspicion that even so-called ‘success’ at overcoming this experience is never quite as permanent as people may think.

All three women are excellent actors with strong skills and they deliver engaging performances. There is a gentle vulnerability to Stewart-Tewhiu’s Cleo; a compelling arrogance to Croft’s chess horse embodiment of The Black, and although McGill’s therapist occasionally comes across as more of a charcoal caricature, there is much potential to unlock here.

Stop-motion animation showcases some evocative illustrations (also by Stewart-Tewhiu), and Christine Urquhart’s organic and vivid OHP projections and set design create a beautiful sense of sliding, layered images. These add to this constantly shifting cosmos where, although not fully developed, multiple realities battle against each other.

However, at the end of the show it feels there is still more to be said.

As a personal story about depression, The Black functions well at providing a form of restorative justice in bringing this subject into public conversation. But although personal, this story isn’t quite personal enough. It still functions almost exclusively on a superficial level that trades in recognizable tropes and the result is an important, but strangely generic response to depression. This is a valid and legitimate arena, and certainly these stories need to be told, but how they are done needs to be explored and engaged with in greater depth. Different lenses also need to be applied to tease out the uniqueness of the journey outside the limited parameters of the expected narrative.

The moment when Stewart-Tewhiu explains to her therapist that she is struggling with her drawing suggests there is another narrative here, albeit one that peeps out only for a few moments. Her artwork is intriguing and reflective (and used wonderfully in the animation) and yet in some ways the effects of depression on this illustrator is kept on the fringes of this confessional story and that’s a pity.

Brimming with ambition The Black nevertheless lacks the reflexivity of moving beyond the foreseeable gamut of emotions. Director Thomas Sainsbury has a strong creative vision but the characters are over-directed in ways that make the work clench to fit certain paradigms rather than taking risks in new ways as have been done with the multi-media. The unfortunate cliché of comparing a battle with the demons of depression to an unhealthy break-up also gives it touch of television tinsel that it simply doesn’t need.

Similarly, Croft’s character is brilliant but the subtlety quickly wanes with oft-repeated gestures, snorts and prancing. There is much more to this embodiment of depression than the slightly cartoonish and resentful version that we see at the end.  The staging as much as the pacing also needs further exploration and this is particularly evident in the scenes between McGill and Stewart-Tewhiu. Both have striking stage presences but they are reduced to a ping-pong exchange across the length of the stage that compromises the intimacy of those scenes and detracts from the meta-narrative that simmers below.

Telling one’s personal story is incredibly brave and The Black does that admirably – but it’s just the start of a powerful and creative courageous conversation on depression.

#theatre #review #stewart-tewhiu #depression #sainsbury