I went to see Richard Butchins play 213 Things About Me at the Battersea Arts Centre a month ago, now. An intensely personal piece of work for both the writer/ director and for the actress – the incredibly talented Rosa Hoskins – I knew this was going to be one of those pieces that stay with you a long time.
213 Things About Me first had an outing in 2015 as a film installation – part of the Unlimited showcase at Summerhall. An elegy to a female friend of Butchins who committed suicide, the writing was drawn from conversations and emails between the two, before the suicide that cut her life short at the age of 36. The writing and performance have been worked and honed over time. And whilst the play serves as a testament to the lack of regard society affords people whose brains work differently, it equally remains non-prescriptive, nuanced and wrought through with a dark humour.
Rosa Hoskins commitment to the role was flawless, determined as she was to give justice to the life story of a woman who, in spite of being immensely intelligent, including the ability to speak 5 languages and to play 12 instruments, could not reconcile herself to the fact that the simple aspirations for a job and a family that she imagined for herself, were seemingly too unobtainable and out of reach.
The play opens with Rose, dressed awkwardly – clearly someone who doesn’t fit well in her own skin – coming stage front to arrange the scattered objects, musical instruments and general paraphernalia from her life. She introduces herself, cracks a joke about being dead, before giving a nuanced personal account of the trials and tribulations of living with an ‘aspie’ take on the world.
Her stories take us through a chronology from her childhood onwards. Rose taught herself to read at the age of 3 and kept a childhood journal in order to remember how terrible it was to be a child. The performance takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster… she gives a terrifying account of her father telling her off for crying like a sparrow, suddenly taking on the physicality of a large, powerful man – “and how does it make sense to scold a child for crying?”
Rose then moves forward in time and explains, for instance that she can’t understand restaurant menus because they aren’t in alphabetical order. She’d love a job as a lexicographer and once took on the task of indexing the telephone directory, for fun. She talks about the ridiculousness of life – the way that neurotypical social behaviour in a so-called normal society is constructed around a gossamer web of lies.
And amongst other things she recounts the huge joy of finding a litany of historical associations with her birth date and imagining reliving aspects of that history. In part, referencing Butchins own profession as a film-maker, Rose has a go at the inane nonsense that is the majority of television, telling us that her ideal kind of tv would be documentaries about things like scuba diving techniques in the 1970s.
213 Things About Me is a reminder of the fragility of what we perceive as reality – as such it’s largely a piece of writing about neurodiversity, written to educate and entertain a neurotypical audience.
For me personally, currently struggling with several bereavements and near bereavements, 213 Things About Me is an acute reminder of what it is to assemble memories of a life, how you choose to reduce all of the time, the hours, days and years that make up a lifetime – even a short-lived life time – into a coherent testament. And, it’s a lesson in how to deal with grief in a way that honours both the individual and the relationship they had with the world.
It also acted as a reminder of my own attempts at suicide as a teenager – and my grief for the child that was, trying to make sense of a world that just refused to make sense – and continues to be completely incomprehensible.
213 Things About Me certainly deserved a bigger audience than came to the BAC on the night I went. The play is dark and difficult but deserves a future airing for its originality and sheer brilliance; whether it gets picked up remains to be seen.