The drugs don’t work, suggests Dylan Tighe, in his compelling new production about depression and mental illness, mined from the depths of his own struggle with the black demon and his distrust of a dysfunctional psychiatric health service that, he intimates here, will likely only make the situation worse.
Tighe, who was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder in 2004, also uses the occasion of this performance to introduce live music from his debut album, 'Record' – songs clearly inspired by his difficult experiences and his disillusionment with the rigidity of a health service that tends to treat patients as specimens rather than human beings: “To gift the mind to chemistry, to numb it to the truth, hurts more than the bitter feeling that joy is but a fluke,” he sings on the song 'Lamotrigine'.
While the production, which lightens its heavy subject matter with whimsy and sardonic humour, has thematic echoes of work such as One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so original – and fearless – a performer is Tighe that he makes the subject matter his own, and in doing so compels the frank consideration of a complex issue without drawing any easy conclusions.
Sitting at a large desk, in a space scattered with props such as an electric guitar, a record player and a few chairs, Tighe begins by projecting fragments of documents – his birth certificate, his mental health records (which he received under the Freedom of Information Act), his drug prescriptions – onto a large screen for the audience to read. As the piece progresses, and against the backdrop of songs from Fleetwood Mac ('Man of the World'), Pink Floyd ('Comfortably Numb'), and the soundtrack to the film Betty Blue, he intermingles real life events – his breakdown, his illness and his interaction with the medical system – with a kind of surrealistic landscape during which the nurse (Aoife Duffin) sent to tend to him becomes his friend, his seducer and ultimately his lover. When he is not at the desk, Tighe, who wrote and directed the piece, frequently sits to the side as a passive spectator in the production, and takes in with a kind of bemused indifference his own attempt to navigate the spectrum of the mental health industry.
Daniel Reardon plays the straight-backed psychiatrist who appears to believe in a disconnect between the mind and the soul – medicating Tighe, he recites the words of 'Comfortably Numb': “Ok. Just a little pinprick. There’ll be no more aaaaaaah! But you may feel a little sick.” – until he suddenly offers Tighe a stay at his home by the sea, where there are sunflowers and oranges and the patient can play tennis in the open air.
Drummer Conor Murray joins in during the live singing sessions, as does Duffin, and it is at these moments that Tighe lifts himself from an almost catatonic state, belting out the songs with energy and anger, before once again retreating into silence and detachment, watching himself and his past life as an actor as if from afar.
Indeed, his actor’s showreel, which is screened during the performance, gives some indication of how far Tighe was once willing to push himself as a performer, frequently appearing naked on stage and in film, and often engaging with roles that interrogated the lives of ‘unstable’ characters. Eventually, it all became too much and Tighe’s breakdown was preceded by his pulling out of the role of Hamlet, saying he was “too depressed to act depressed”.
Although the work is autobiographical, Tighe is intent on considering a wider frame than the merely personal. Depression, we come to understand, is a beast of an illness, or of a situation; there may be redemption, but it will not come easy. Although Tighe may ironically undercut the health system, and the pharmaceutical industry that medicates depression – he shows an advertisement selling medication for bi-polar syndrome, which has a list of potential side effects as long as your arm – he also makes fun of the self-help industry, which offers ‘self-love’ and ‘forgiveness’ as a utopian solution: the last few scenes, set in the psychiatrist’s summer house by the sea, where Tighe and the nurse eat oranges and play tennis, are as much an escapist illusion as the idea that a pill can magic it all away.
In contrast, throughout the show, Tighe showcases extracts from an interview carried out with Dr Pat Bracken, a consultant psychiatrist, who among other things, was involved in the Mad Pride festivals in Cork. As he ends his session with Tighe, Dr Bracken makes the salient point that wrestling with depression is a struggle, and that rather than seeking instant relief, we might do better to view it as such. Tighe himself is offering no ready solutions, or simplistic routes out of the darkness, but it may be that there is some strange comfort in that.
Rachel Andrews is an arts journalist and critic, based in Cork.