Calixto Bieito, a director previously described as "the bad boy" of European theatre brings to The REP an exploration of emotion, mental illness, lust and frustration. Delivered through recitals of poetry, writings of philosophers and classical music from The Heath Quartet, The String Quartet’s Guide To Sex And Anxiety makes a solid attempt to break boundaries in experimental theatre.
There is something incredibly striking about what Bieito has created, particularly within his and Annemarie Bulla’s design. For starters the stage extends past the proscenium arch to allow the performers to get right up in the audience's faces. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the presence of anxiety, depression and all forms of mental illness in society and an attempt to break down the taboo of discussing it. Also, the stage is filled with stacks of dozens of chairs and a cluster of music stands. Throughout the show they are thrown about, knocked over, torn apart and at times stacked tidily almost reflecting the mind of someone with anxiety, like organised chaos. But the vast sweeping stage of The REP dwarfs the performers while they retain a sense of intimacy in their performances, creating a powerful contradiction.
The Heath Quartet are not providing their glorious renditions of Ligeti’s String Quartet No.2 and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11, Opus 95 as simply a soundtrack for the evening, but the music integrates with the performers in a unique way reflecting their mental states. They also have a powerful effect on the audience, adding suspense, surprise and uncertainty to the piece, almost like another character altogether in this show. Even when they are not playing it is difficult to differentiate them from the actors.
The cast of four portray unnamed characters with different stages of mental illness and how visibly recognisable it is within them. Miltos Yerolemou opens the show reciting Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. Armed with his glasses and notepad, like a therapist, he subtly portrays his character with internal pain, while Mairead McKinley is constantly wandering the stage, physically distressed with a sex-addicted personality. Nick Harris is continually fidgeting with props around him in an OCD-like manner; he also has many phobias and medications which he lists – providing a few of the laughs. Cathy Tyson subtly builds up to her heart-breaking recital of Stig Dagermann’s To Kill A Child showing a completely different side of mental illness. There is no denying that these actors are brilliantly talented in evoking this sensitive subject, which they do so with grace and subtly in a harrowing way.
For some, this production may be seen as a bit too avant-garde. It is not exactly the lightest of material to watch, the sexual language and nature is not one for the faint-hearted. Nor may it be seen as the most appealing of shows if you are not used to this type of production, but full kudos must be given to this company and Bieito in tackling such a sensitive, but prevalent subject in a deeply theatrical way. This piece may not have the best structure nor may it be completely clear of what it is, but perhaps that is its intention, as mental illness isn’t clear or structured, it is unpredictable, devastating and an ordeal of emotion. This show is brave, daring and experimental which makes it right for a non-commercial theatre like The REP to produce and is a well-programmed and thought-provoking piece during Mental Health Awareness Week.
The String Quaret’s Guide To Sex And Anxiety runs until Saturday 19th May at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
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