Culture Critic Naomi Simpson enjoys The Magnetic Diaries, an unflinching play about depression, at the mac
Theatre is perhaps the oldest and best-established vehicle for escapism which we still enjoy today. As the house lights fall and the curtain is pulled back, we expect to be carried through the dramas and heartbreaks of characters at once real and idealised, falling in love and out of reality in one fell swoop. This is not the theatre of The Magnetic Diaries, Sarah James’ recent play directed by Tiffany Hosking of Reaction Theatre Makers and performed at MAC Birmingham on Saturday. James’ play is a collision of poetry and drama in which the trauma of living with depression is made immediate to the audience and which uses poetic language to give voice to this often side-lined and hidden issue. Emma, played by Vey Straker, is the play’s protagonist and only on-stage character. Through her own poetic diary entries and emails from her doctors and husband, the plot follows her experiences as she struggles with depression and is forced to leave her husband and daughter at home for Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation treatment in London. This separation between Emma and her home environment allows the play to do away with conventions of character and the spectre of depression takes centre-stage.
Not only did the poetic language allow for a sincere emotional connection to the play, the intimacy of the MAC’s 84-seat Hexagon Theatre space created an atmosphere which was at times claustrophobic. In a sense, it seemed as though James was challenging society’s ingrained reaction to turn away from these issues by physically limiting the space between audience and performer. From the play’s outset, our ideas of conventional set design were also re-imagined as the audience watched Straker enter from an exposed door into a set designed to look like the bare minimum of a home environment. At various times, Straker assembled and re-assembled parts of the set, climbed them and re-appropriated them in entirely different contexts, all creating the illusion of an only somewhat stable reality.
Although overall the play navigated the emotion of the subject matter well, at times it verged towards melodrama. The combination of a poetic dialogue, stark red and blue lighting and the lone figure of Emma on stage did feel at times overly symbolic and in particular Straker’s use of gesture seemed overwrought. This might have been intended to heighten the sense of dramatic tension and further challenge how we interpret issues of mental health but it simply pushed too far past subtlety to be fully convincing.
Intriguingly, the character of Emma was frequently difficult to like, despite the pain of her experiences on stage predisposing the audience to sympathy. However, the reality of her apparently supportive home environment was exposed through the reading of emails from her husband calling into question this sympathy. But this is the strength of James’ writing: despite Emma’s illness, she is still not the victim we might expect her to be. She is a woman who is both literally – through her diary entries – and metaphorically – through her singular presence on stage – the author of her own experience.
A memorable and ambitious performance, The Magnetic Diaries unflinchingly exposes the loneliness of depression. Although at times over-stylised, the play begs the question of whether or not society is in fact equipped to talk about depression without the use of euphemisms and emotional distance.