Mental Notes – Dunedin Fringe Review

On 16 March, I had the immense pleasure of watching the Suitcase Theatre perform Mental Notes as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Rarely have I encountered such an uplifting and touching take on mental health. Mental Notes, is at its heart, an exploration of mental health, a sustained conversation with many different voices. Over the course of an hour, sitting in the dark of the ArtSenta building, I was reminded that I am not alone in my mental illness.

Mental Notes comprises a collection of stories from the Dunedin community, all anonymous, but real. In the wake of horrifying statistics and impersonal, vague reassurances from medical authorities, it’s refreshing to hear from real people. I won’t lie – it was challenging at times, but I was reassured by the knowledge that members from Life Matters Suicide Prevention Trust were on hand for emotional support, should I need it. I also really appreciated the fact that the cast invited us to chat and drink tea with them afterwards.

The show began with an upbeat performance of the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, and a discussion of the fact that almost everyone we meet is hiding something: “Our facade is a carefully curated selection of traits.” We then dived into a discussion of trigger warnings, and the stigmas surrounding mental health. The conversation was by turns uplifting, and sobering, articulating a range of experiences and reminding the audience that mental illness impacts different people in different ways. For example, when the topic of labels was touched upon, one character argued that “You don’t have to be given a label to know who you are.” That indeed is one person’s truth, but we also heard from another character how they found a palpable sense of relief at being able to articulate just what was going on inside their head.

Throughout the performance, authentic and alarming statistics were interwoven with the spoken word, reminding the audience of the sheer number of people behind the voices. I was encouraged by the stories of coping mechanisms and hearty support systems. I especially appreciated the way I could relate to the places (such as St Clairs beach) mentioned in the performance. It added a degree of familiarity to the stories that made them even more real in my eyes.

Throughout the performance, each actor moved a suitcase around the simple stage space, constantly refiguring the area. This ever changing layout added dynamism to the performance, which was further explored in the scene about clinical trials of ketamine therapy. I really enjoyed the use of music and lights in this session, and the physical theatre was spellbinding, with actors writhing and manipulating the space in a vivid and eye-catching way.

I was also touched by the scene wherein a woman recounts the story of a toxic friendship, as she watches her close friend unravel and become psychotic. “The books say that you are not responsible for someone else’s happiness,” she says, but we all know that it’s hard to think about such matters in a purely logical and intellectual way. As someone who has struggled with being someone’s sole emotional support, I really related to this scene. 24/7 support of someone struggling with mental health is really exhausting. That’s why it’s important that we all have comprehensive support systems in place.

It was also fascinating learning about the history of “treatment” for mental health issues over the ages, from Martin Luther’s ignorant and worrisome perception of mental health, to the Dunedin Eugenics society in the early twentieth century. Think of lobotomies, electroshock therapy and the current furor over the issue of “overmedicating”, and you’ll realise that it’s a difficult road, getting help for mental health concerns.

Mental Notes ended with the song Forks and Spoons, a touching and funny ditty about life with an invisible illness.

Good morning universe, my eyes crack open slowly for the day
I am a spoonie, so I’m forced to live my life a certain way.
A spoonie is a person with an illness that you cannot see
And spoons are how we calculate our units of strength and energy
A spoonie wakes up with a single predetermined set of spoons
We can’t make more (like normies do) if we run out mid-afternoon.
Spoons deplete with struggles and activities, both work and fun
So spoonies try to keep some spoons aside to get the things that matter done
“Get up!” SPOON
“Make the bed!” SPOON!
“Quiet all the melancholy voices in my head!” SPOON!
“Reach up in the shower!” SPOON
“Reach down in the shower!” SPOON
“Leave the house” SPOON!
“Face the rain” SPOON!
“Go to work and don’t leave early again!” SPOON!
“Headache” SPOON!
“Making tea!” TEA SPOON!
“Sitting through an acquaintance telling you that all you need is yoga and a positive mindset!” SPOON!
“Digging that person’s shallow grave!” A SHOVEL!
When the final spoon is gone, we cannot move, or even talk
So if I save a spoon to give to you, I give a fork.
Mental Notes is a poignant and touching reminder of the folk behind the mental health statistics. I only wish it could be performed to wider audiences. It is a collection of tales that everyone needs to hear.

Written by Jean Balchin. Student at University of Otago.