Morgan Stern is one of a number of plays written from the perspective of lived experience of mental distress to be staged at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Colin Hambrook spoke to Goldele Rayment Director at Company of Rogues, who are bringing their show to the festival all the way from Sydney, Australia.
Many of the team from Company of Rogues have an interest in mental health through their personal or professional lives. Rayment is no exception, having been dealing with the fallout of mental health since her teens. Her passion is to create good art that simulates what it feels like to go through mental distress.
“I want to give an audience a sense of what is sounds, feels and tastes like to live through this kind of experience. When I picked up Gina Schien’s script for Morgan Stern, I was immediately taken with the unique way the play addresses mental health. It wasn’t just telling an autobiographical narrative. It was something that was going to expound the experience of psychosis, with compassion and brutal honesty.”
Informed by the lived experience of her own brother’s life, Schien’s poetic story is told by a mysterious figure from the English Georgian era, known only as The Gent. Dead for 221 years, he is part ghost, part protector and has been assigned to the other side of the planet to minister to Morgan, a young Sydneysider labelled with schizophrenia. Morgan Stern is based on the experience of the playwright’s brother who killed himself when he was in his early thirties.
“It’s very hard for somebody who hasn’t been suicidal to understand why someone would do that. My hope is that our play conveys enough compassion for the pain and struggle for a man who tried valiantly to do the best that he could, but then it was just too hard.
By the time you get to the end of the play you begin to understand what happened to both The Gent and Morgan Stern and why his life became so unbearable for him. The Gent’s is a complex narrative set between two families whose lives are two centuries apart. He doesn’t know where he is, and it’s as if he’s being kept in some big building by these benevolent but scary beings. But we don’t know. No-one knows.”
Clearly, it’s an intriguing narrative. But Rayment hopes audiences will get much more from the play than pure entertainment.
“For me, it’s good art that counts and making theatre that creates a heightened and connected emotional experience. I hope Morgan Stern will take audiences into a different space, somewhere that is hopefully enlightening as well as engaging.
Another reason why I make plays about mental illness is to reclaim the narrative and tell authentic stories that help people understand each other better. The myth is often that people with mental illness are dangerous but the statistics show that it is very rare for someone to be dangerous towards others and much more likely that we will harm ourselves.
This is such a personal piece for the playwright and when someone gives you something that’s a part of them there’s a sense that the story must be honoured and respected. We’ve had confirmation from various individuals and families with lived experience of mental health, thanking me for what the company has created – and that’s really special and I know we’re doing something important to challenge taboos about mental illness.
In feedback so far people have said they came away with more appreciation of what schizophrenia looks like for a person rather than simply as a scary construct based on stereotypes.”
This has deep personal significance, not just for Schien, but for Rayment herself, who is refreshingly candid about her own experiences.
“I was diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (also know as multiple personality disorder) as well as having bi-polar. Schizophrenia and Dissociative Identity Disorder are both conditions that are used persistently as devices in television shows and films. And they always revert to the stereotype of the crazy, scary criminal. And it’s just not who we are. It’s not realistic.
I want to show the reality that we are just people who are dealing with a difficult set of circumstances. I can only speak from my perspective but the key issues are, first, just how debilitating having a mental health condition can be. But also it’s not a freaky abnormal thing. It can be scary for the individual but it’s not something to be feared by other people.
I hope we are working towards making it safer to be open about these things. When I was in my twenties I was hesitant to divulge. After a number of years away from my creative career due to my health my way back into the arts was to work for a community arts and cultural development organisation that I’d been involved with as a participant. They already knew my history and were supportive of me. So I was in a supported environment.”
Rayment has an important and supportive message for anyone else going through mental distress:
“It’s okay to get help. It may be therapy or medication, or do whatever it is that you need to do to get the necessary support. I’ve been lucky to gather people around me who have had personal experience of mental health issues themselves and who don’t judge. I’m very grateful I have access to that community.
I don’t see having had multiple personality disorder as a negative thing. Whilst some of the side-effects of dissociating, switching between and having to learn to be present as a whole person could be distressing, ultimately it was very interesting objectively. In hindsight it was fascinating.
I am very lucky that I got access to parts of myself that most people don’t. Most people have to work really hard to connect with their internal life. There’s a whole movement around ‘connecting with your inner child’ and part of me is like ‘oh, is it that hard?’”
Rayment’s sense of anticipation at bringing the play half way across the world to one of the most established arts festivals globally is palpable.
“It’s very exciting to be doing this. It’s important for the company to get this piece to Edinburgh. But, I also think this show is stunning, and deserves to be seen in as many places as possible.
It wouldn’t hurt if a bunch of producers and festival directors and promoters went “isn’t this fantastic”, but I know the reality is that that may well not happen. We might just as easily show the piece to the Edinburgh audience, have a lot of fun and come home. You don’t know what it’s going to be like until you try.”
Morgan Stern is showing at C primo (Venue 41), Lodge No 1, 19 Hill Street, EH2 3JP from 6th-28th August (not 14th)