at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 8th May 2013
Around a third of the way through Caroline Horton’s Mess, I realised I’d seen the show during a Triggered scratch night at Warwick Arts Centre last year. The form, tone and set-up had felt familiar since the show started, but I just put that down to both seeing Horton’s You’re Not Like the Other Girl Chrissy two years back and the style just being, well, familiar. Then, however, it clicked, as I figured out that I had seen it before, albeit in a more basic form. Instantly, I remembered loving it back in early 2012. Which perhaps goes some way to explaining why I couldn’t bring myself to love it this time.
Similarly, I’d heard a lot of talk about Mess at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, with discussions of its humour, its ‘issues’ and – crucially – the way it split critics pretty much along gender lines (as I recall). I remember talking about the show with various people, reading various reviews and generally experiencing the arguments it had to offer second-hand, all the while completely unaware that if I wanted to I probably could have contributed to the debate given my previous experience of the piece.
Or not. The thing is, had someone walked up to me in Edinburgh and told me that I had indeed seen a version of the show before and that yes, I could contribute to a discussion, the only thing I really would have remembered was the form of the piece, which is presented as a trio of friends laying out their plans for a play telling the story of Josephine.
I wouldn’t, however, have been able to say anything about its discussion of anorexia nervosa. Because I completely forgot that bit.
Obviously the scratch performance was about that, and obviously I remember that now, but before seeing it again that rather major detail had completely slipped my mind. I *think* this is because, to me, that isn’t the most interesting thing about Mess. For me, the departure point for discussion about Horton’s show would always be its self-awareness and metatheatricality.
According to Josephine (played by Horton herself), what we see before us is the low-budget version of the show they plan on doing in the future, which will have a “full orchestra” and a “revolving stage”. All that we see, however, is a keyboard surrounded by some wooden boxes downstage left and a mound of some sort upstage right, covered in carpet and topped off with a parasol. And rather than a large ensemble, Josephine can only afford to have her friends Boris (Hannah Boyde) and Sistahl (Seiriol Davis) to help her out at this stage. Sat in the auditorium, then, we play two audiences – the one watching Josephine telling us her story and the one watching Horton create the story of Josephine.
The advantage of this self-awareness is that we are treated to dozens of beautiful moments of awkwardness (orchestrated by director Alex Swift), where the trio on stage don’t quite see eye-to-eye and frequently disagree about the way something should be staged, instantly creating a drama which isn’t actively present in the main story. Some of the most tense scenes take place when Boris has decided he doesn’t wish to be a part of the show any more and sulks away to the audience, leaving Josephine alone on stage to describe what’s about to happen. There are also some glorious pieces of physical comedy, such as the “big finale”, which come very close to full-out farce.
Now, this style has clearly been chosen as a response to the subject matter, the idea being that Josephine’s only way of responding to and retelling her condition is through her own take on a sort of epic, episodic theatre. The whimsy and fluffiness of Mess also demonstrates the difficulty we have in discussing anorexia and its effects, no matter what our relationship to it. But I do wonder how much it captures all the complexities and causes of the disease, whether they be psychological, physical or social (though one particularly brilliant scene sees a qualified doctor completely unable to talk to Josephine about her condition).
But then, what right do I have to question this? I have no experience, direct or indirect, of anorexia nervosa, and so feel in some respects like I can’t interrogate the piece too much, especially seeing as Horton created it from personal experience. She clearly created this piece honestly, and so I guess in quite a major way Mess *must* reflect the experiences of the condition. But as someone with very little knowledge of the subject matter, one of the things I took from the show was the suggestion that individuals suffering from it can sometimes be pretty content with their life as it is (though again, maybe I’m missing something; the whole thing is ostensibly a performance, so maybe Josephine is just performing this to us like everything else. Or, even, some sufferers can be purely content with their life).
As much as form and content are completely dependent upon one another in this piece, I just can’t shake the feeling that the thing which I learnt most from and kept focussing on throughout was the craft behind both Josephine’s creation of her show and Horton’s creation of her show, with all the wonderful questions that brings with it: “What is Josephine’s and what is Horton’s?”, “Would it actually be a good piece of theatre if there wasn’t the layer of awareness?”, “How did both Horton and Boyde get so good at acting an actor?” But for all the myriad thoughts these things brought with them, I couldn’t get my head round arguably the most important one: “What does the form say about the content?”
And maybe this is the point. Maybe this just demonstrates the difficulty we find in talking about eating disorders and the way in which we pigeon-hole people when we do. Perhaps, indeed, it exposes my own prejudices and ignorance and lack of empathy. I don’t know.
All of which does very little to explain why I didn’t wholly love it.