Surfacing, Vault Festival/Digital Theatre – Review

“You’re managing the surface and you’ve completely lost the depths”

Therapists are only human and as such, are not immune to having to work through issues of their own. Even mental health professionals may have unresolved traumas, which can bleed through into their work when least expected… Written by Tom Powell and directed by Stephen Bailey, Surfacing focuses on Luc (Rosie Gray), an cognitive behavioural therapist working for the NHS. Luc is perhaps not ‘happy’, but on the surface she is ‘on an even keel’… However, an unscheduled meeting with Owen (Daniel Rainford) triggers a dormant memory, one that wasn’t buried that deep in the first place…

Owen (Daniel Rainford) and Luc (Rosie Gray) / © Alex Brenner

Luc’s ‘professional detachment’ and adherence to filling in forms at her initial meeting – instead of allowing Owen to talk straightaway about what’s burdening him – is shown to be counter-productive and not adequate for treating Owen as a unique case. But as we hear what’s bothering Owen, we realise he and Luc are two sides of the same coin.

For Luc to feel ‘whole’, she must be able to help Owen. But she also must put in the same ‘work’ on herself. For the first rule of medicine (aside from the Hippocratic oath’s ‘Do no harm’) is ‘Physician, heal thyself’. However, seeing Luc trying to broach the subject of her deceased brother with her mother – and then promptly ‘shut down’ – it’s small wonder that she’s not been able to talk about her emotions and find closure. The fact that Luc feels indirectly responsible for the death of her brother Max, compounds her resolve to ‘square the circle’.

The beginning of the play – with its description of what’s on stage and a general description of what’s to come – is very Brechtian, drawing attention to the ‘artificiality’ of the play. However, it has to be said that Surfacing in its theatrical DNA has more in common with the work of playwright Anthony Neilson, with its depiction of the interior landscape of characters and using non-naturalistic means to do so.

From the very beginning we hear Luc’s internal monologue and while captions of her conservations are displayed upstage for the audience to read, to the left of it are displayed Luc’s own thoughts. Ben Glover, who worked on the show’s video design and captions, uses text creatively for the internal monologue, inspired by the Bauhaus movement with the juxtaposition of typography. Looking at the inner monologue text, we can tell when Luc’s thoughts are cascading and the attempts at sustaining a calm state of mind are failing miserably.

The introduction in Luc’s backstory of her history with experimenting with mice – including injecting them with copious amounts of ketamine to ‘alleviate’ depression – could be said to be a comment on the ‘ethics’ of using brutal treatments to achieve questionable results, for an end to justify the means. Luc’s backstory also puts into question her rationale and methodology, the initial disassociation she had with ‘treating’ the mice her coping mechanism in general for not feeling emotional pain.

It is perhaps no surprise that in allowing herself to think and ‘feel’ again, Luc imagines seeing and hearing her brother, as well as the mice she experimented on when she was feeling emotionally numb. Their anthropomorphised presence in the play, mirrors the style – if not context – of the horse-men in Peter Shaffer’s Equus, as well as a Lewis Carroll-esque signifier of a ‘break from rational reality’. Mice (or rather rats) are a source of fear in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, an incident from the past used to elicit the deepest fears. In Luc’s case, it is the ‘confirmation’ of her (lack of) self-worth and culpability.

As Luc, Gray is very relatable, with her inner critical thoughts never giving her a monent’s peace. But while Luc’s feeling of ‘imposter’s syndrome’ is relentless, at its core is a nugget of truth – that to help others to face up to the spiral of negative thinking, you have to face up to you own ‘unpalatable traits’ and not pretend they doesn’t exist. The fact that the ‘cracks’ begin to show when Luc speaks to her supervisor Dave and friend Ciara, as well as ‘elsewhere’ is something Owen picks up on, even without knowing these details. But the play’s anaology of drowning and Luc blaming Owen for ‘pulling her under’ only highlights the change of perspective Luc needs. She was already ‘drowning’ – she didn’t realise she was in the same position as the ‘service users’…

While Surfacing isn’t as stark as Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, it is fearless in its attempt to broach the subject of mental health and using non-naturalistic techniques to denote the universal susceptibility of self-doubt. Not everything is neatly resolved in the end, but then mental health never is. It has to be worked on, on a daily basis.

© Michael Davis 2023

Surfacing ran at the Vault Festival from 14th to 19th February and recorded for online viewing.

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