As the audience congregate in the Basement foyer, I swear I can faintly hear hoofbeats and the sound of horses on the speaker system over the noise of pre-show chatter. No one seems to notice, leaving me wondering if I was experiencing auditory hallucinations, but my theatre companion heard it too. Perhaps this is indicative of the content to follow. For all of the apocalyptic language and imagery within, depression in Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu’s The Black is a solitary affliction, not something to scatter and silence crowds, but something to stamp, snort, and savagely gallop around the mind of an individual.
Cleo (Stewart-Tewhiu) frankly informs us that she has clinical depression. We quickly meet the other two characters and are thrown into a scene between Cleo and her therapist Sondra (Kate McGill), with interjections from The Black (Julia Croft), an equine manifestation of Cleo’s depression seen and heard only by her. I balk a little at the familiar ground of such a setup, but the script is at its crackling, electric best during these therapy scenes. The Black is not merely a void; Croft has created a magnificent, petulant, charming, and yet repulsive personification of Cleo’s depression, inexorably linked to her - seductive and destructive. She whispers in Cleo’s ear the biting comebacks which Cleo then spits at Sondra, and their mutual distaste for everything Sondra stands for is a major source of humour. Kate McGill does good work with an underwritten character who is introduced as “my therapist”, and doesn’t really grow beyond that, but what interests us most is the relationship between Cleo and the titular Black.
By giving so much theatrical energy and power to the personification of depression, The Black, under Thomas Sainsbury’s playful direction, is a more complex exploration of depression than we may be used to. The Black is not interested in finding answers, instead exploring the inner mind of an individual experience, from which it seems to conclude that much of what Sondra has been saying to Cleo the whole time is true: it does get better. But the journey is difficult, complicated, there are no right answers, and it can be a life-long struggle. However, the second half of the play fails to resolve this conflict, and feels in need of development; the ending in particular feeling abrupt.
The cast move well, dances and fights being a highlight, the performers finding striking physical movements drawn from Croft’s relentless physicality (helped along by a fantastically evocative pair of boots). Croft enters at first wearing a scary polygonal black horse mask that I’m disappointed didn’t re-emerge, but more than makes up for it through snorts, teeth gnashing, and equine characterisations. The intimate space provokes a sense of play with the audience and I wish this could have been engaged with further, Cleo drawing someone in her sketchbook, or the Black mockingly suggesting friendship between Cleo and an audience member.
Stewart-Tewhiu’s script engages well with the paradox of being a performance about one of the most stigmatised of human experiences. The play raises the issue that you can’t tell people you have depression, because it’s depressing to hear. At one point, Cleo dismisses friends who swam the Cook Strait to ‘raise awareness’ for depression as merely raising awareness for themselves. In writing, staging, and performing in The Black, Stewart-Tewhiu has bravely done the antithesis of those who would ‘raise awareness’ for the sake of raising awareness. It is tender, raw, and never indulgent. When the dialogue slips into a more poetic mode, it feels more organic coming from the Black than it does from Sondra and Cleo, where it sometimes struggles to find truth, but the overall balance of vivid language with more down-to-earth exchanges is well-crafted.
Christine Urquhart’s set is the most effective use of the Basement main space I’ve seen in a while, audience snugged in on cushions on rostra overlooking a thrust performance space at ground level, the fourth wall a blank canvas on which raw, grungy live OHP designs are projected intermittently throughout the show. The projection of drawings and tangible objects here is exciting, if under-utilised, and I preferred this to the projection of pre-recorded video (mainly Stewart-Tewhiu’s stop motion) on to the theatre floor, which had difficult sightlines due to seating arrangements, and was not integrated fluidly enough into the show. With the exception of a short sequence of Cleo entrapped by a small circling horse, the use of this AV felt more like interludes than part of the whole. The final moments relied on this AV, which I was not able to follow from where I was sitting. Perhaps a dedicated live OHP artist would prove more effective at working the projections into the performance. Sound by Thomas Press carried us through the play’s more abstract moments, and Marshall Bull’s lighting works easily within the unusual space, playing with sparsity and shadow but never leaving us in the dark.
With an all-female cast, an exploration of a regretfully taboo subject, and a wicked sense of humour, The Black is an important and theatrically compelling voice in the ongoing conversation around mental health. I eagerly await to see where Stewart-Tewhiu & Co. take it next.