The listing for this show promised a piece that related to mental health issues: “revealing the inner workings of the mind and our search to find a place of realness and connection in an enduring culture of illusion.” Smoke and Mirrors begins with a disembodied voice quoting stilted, financial figures as performers Laura Stokes and Cohdi Harrell arrive centre-stage in city attire carrying briefcases.
This hour long, dangerous display of technical skill and compelling, often breath-taking movement, sets a scene for the disconnection, instability and brutality that the corporate mentality imposes on society.
More scenario than plot the two characters are at the end of their working day preparing for bed. Accompanied by an electronic, Arabicized version of Eric Satie’s haunting Gnossienne No 1, Stokes cleans her teeth and slowly undresses.
The elegiac backdrop of the music creates an emotional accompaniment to a series of incredible aerial pieces that often defy the imagination. Both performers fully commit themselves to engaging their audience with a powerful comment on modern life.
As they peel off layers down to underwear we witness the dilemma of isolated figures living through mental disarray and torment, whilst outside the world is able to communicate superficially at a level never before dreamed of.
Throughout the partially naked human body is used as a metaphor for vulnerability, although at times the staging and extra lighting focussing on Stokes, as she disrobes, reinforces rather than challenges societies obsession with the sexualisation of the female human form.
There are also moments where the movement falls into a stereotypical idea of mental distress, choosing rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements rather than considering ‘madness’ in a more subtle aspect.
Ultimately, however Smoke and Mirrors is a powerful testament of the human will to make art that reflects us back to ourselves.
Towards the end the pair perform a mesmerising piece of rope-work to the rhythm of a cut-up, repeated quote from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator – “Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed…” continuing in a plea for us to value “kindness over cleverness.”
As such the piece is a reminder that the continuing placing of mental health problems within the individual as a product of psychiatry is a mechanism for disabling the individual. As R.D. Laing put it: “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.” (Knots)