(Spoiler alert: this review reveals plot details)

I’d never seen a play about anorexia before. Mess was good: it was moving at times; more often it was funny. At the very beginning, one of the three characters – Boris, who struggles to know how to be a friend to Josephine, who has anorexia – announced that there would be a short discussion session after the play, over tea and cake, and then stopped, realising that cake might be difficult for people, and then corrected himself to reassure us that don’t worry, it’d be Go Ahead biscuits, not cake. This was the first of many little things which struck that funny little nerve of total accuracy: for years and years, Go Ahead bars were my first food of the day, the immovable gateway between not-eating and eating. Probably I was drawn to them for just the same reasons lots of other anorexics are (in the UK, anyway): they’re fairly low in calories but quite substantial-feeling and very sweet, yet with a hint of healthiness from fruit and wheat bran, and the pairs of biscuits are individually wrapped so the rest stay inert and innocuous till you get to them. Nothing about anorexia and food is very surprising, but that banal predictability can itself still be a surprise, however many times it confronts you. Probably I’ll never stop learning about more little things that I thought were peculiar to me, and were in fact just standard: business as usual for anorexia in action.

Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate
Source: Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate

Mess was written by Caroline Horton, who used to have anorexia, and features three actors: Horton as Josephine, Hannah Boyde as her close friend Boris, and Seiriol Davies adding camply comic relief as musical accompanist and commentator Sistahl. The set is minimal – barely anything there but a high perch spilling over with white duvet for Josephine to climb up and sit on to be alone. The plot is essentially a self-aware dress-rehearsal amongst friends for a proper West End play with elaborate set design and costumes – but the self-reflexiveness somehow doesn’t get in the way, for me at least. (This reviewer thought otherwise. And here Horton talks a little about the humour, and commenters express wildly divergent opinions.) The atmosphere and tone are captured rather nicely in this review.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to make theatre out of something as secretive as anorexia, hard to perform something so static and inward-turned. In response to that difficulty, sometimes the play turned to metaphor, whether in the set and the props – the elevated white fort with duvet and parasol as the anorexic retreat complete with medals awarded for weight loss, or anorexia as a blown-up balloon gradually deflated until it was ‘empty, wrinkly, no fun’ – or in the dialogue alone: anorexia like an ‘abstract relaxing landscape’, or like being at the top of a tall building, or like snorkelling, the world distant and muffled and not mattering. Sometimes the mental processes of anorexia were directly dramatised: for a while the third actor voiced the anorexic demon, chanting in a high-pitched voice over Josephine’s hollow vocalised replies (‘I’m not really hungry’, ‘I’ll have it later’) to Boris as he encouraged her to try the tiny birthday cake he’d brought her: ‘no! nothing! never! mess! goodbye! huge! look what you made me do!’ Sometimes all that was needed was stillness itself: Josephine sat with her four breakfast apple slices, and when Boris came in to offer to make her a cup of tea, she just couldn’t move any more; he was nothing but intrusion to her, not a friend or even a human being really, nothing but a paralysing presence getting in the way of her routine, every fibre of her willing him to be gone.

Evoking anorexia in a way that captures the physical and the behavioural but also the psychological and the social is hard, but maybe evoking recovery in a way that does justice to both its difficulty and its complexity and its simplicity is even harder. Memoirs and novels about anorexia tend to be skewed, at least in terms of sheer space allocated, towards illness and away from recovery, which is a shame, because recovery is really far more interesting; in it individuality re-emerges instead of being starved out. In a mere 75 minutes, Mess made plenty of space for the messy in-between realm spanning inpatient treatment without conviction and the birth of something like determination. That birth happens through desperation, and through boredom too: the journey from I want it [anorexia] to it’s boring, the movement from I want it back to the once-impossible understatement I’m quite hungry in fact is not a neatly linear progression, but there’s more forwards than back; there’s no single instant of revelation, but there are several important moments of understanding, and of action.

The understanding is above all knowing, when relapse happens, that if it continues there’s nowhere to go but back to the dark beginning. The actions are simple elemental actions I remember: eating outside for the first time, eating with other people for the first time – here both at once, eating an ice cream on the beach with Boris. And the understanding and the actions are mediated by two states of mind I too made myself practise: the deliberate cultivation of spontaneity (‘I’m going to be spontaneous on Tuesday’) and the harnessing of negative will power to the positive (‘using her natural bloody-mindedness to get somewhere’). And then there’s the humour: Josephine herself doesn’t really laugh at the anorexia herself, but the other two do – or rather, less laugh themselves than make us laugh, one of the most powerful ways of rejecting anorexia’s deadly humourlessness.

The characters spend a while trying to find a way to start the story, and longer disagreeing about an ending. Josephine tries to say that there can’t be the happily symbolic duvet-tearing ending they’d planned because ‘it hasn’t gone away at all, it’s still here; I don’t think they ever really do’. But Boris disagrees. He reminds her that life isn’t perfect for anyone: ‘70% of life will be average’, the rest might be brilliant, it might be horrendous, but that’s OK, that’s just life. He reminds her too that ‘generally, most days, you are OK’, and that that is real progress, worthy of a happy ending. And so for a while they stand, and we sit, with nothing to do but ‘feel the unendingness’. Yet somehow an ending emerges, and the irony of ‘a monologue about how full and exciting life is’ cedes to a monologue about how full and exciting life really might be, from driving a Porsche to buying a barge and painting it green, and everything in between.

Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate
Source: Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate

Another reason why it’s hard to create theatre, or indeed films or novels, about anorexia is the danger of seeming to glamorise it. This seems to be one of the factors involved in the phenomenon of ‘triggering’, which I’ve recently got very interested in. The portrayal of eating disorders in particular (though some other kinds of illness too, especially perhaps addiction-like ones), whether in text, image, moving image, or embodied performance, seems to carry a significant risk of prompting an envious or emulatory/competitive response in the reader or viewer. A ‘triggered’ response might also occur without any kind of positive value judgement or desire to copy or repeat; it might result from a more direct re-engagement with some of the thoughts or sensations or images or actions of illness. As far as I’m aware, no systematic research has been done on this; no coherent evidence-based definition of the phenomenon even exists, though there are plenty of discussions about it and related phenomena in the eating-disorder context, especially around the problems of online ‘thinspiration’. I hope to find ways of doing some research on this myself sometime. For now, watching this play, I was wondering particularly about the roles of physical description and of cliché, particularly in the context of an explicitly autobiography-based creation.

Josephine told us how one day, coming back from her first afternoon out of the inpatient clinic, she saw an ambulance at the entrance, and from the ambulance came a girl in a wheelchair, ‘tinier than I ever saw anyone’, her hips visible through her bright pink trousers, everything about her pointy, even her forehead with two piercings between the brows. She spoke of how at dinner that evening, with the new girl opposite, ‘I can’t look at her and also can’t take my eyes off her – and I want it back.’ This is triggering in a nutshell: seeing someone iller than you and wanting to be that way (again). I wonder what the effect of describing this process is likely to be on someone hearing it from a situation of vulnerability: both a repeat of the triggered response, and the acquisition of critical distance, heightened awareness, and potentially thereby motivation to change, seem possible. Maybe both can happen at once, or in quick succession. Maybe it all comes down to the individual, and no generalisations can be made, but I suspect there’s some determining role for what we might think of as the stimulus type.

Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate
Source: Caroline Horton and Co and China Plate

I was thinking similar things about the four slices of apple for breakfast. The not-eating of it was interestingly orchestrated with music and gesture, and Boris’s paralysing presence was powerful, but still, it was repeating the good old cliché: anorexia is about eating an apple a day. It usually isn’t. (You can get very ill eating a hell of lot more than one apple a day.) Then again, it sometimes is. And quite possibly for the writer (and actor of Josephine), it was. Clichés are clichés for a reason, so the meta-cliché goes.

So then, what can and should be the relative weightings of personal experience and representativeness, of individual and wider truths, of honesty and responsibility, of awareness-raising honesty and responsible awareness-raising? How can any individual seeking to represent their illness in any way negotiate these imperatives – work out when they’re complementary, when mutually exclusive, and what, when push comes to shove, matters above all else?

These are questions I ask myself often when writing this blog, and on the rare occasions when I speak publicly about anorexia. I asked Horton a question about it in the short discussion period after the play: when writing it, even with the benefit of advice from medical, psychiatric, and charity experts, had she worried about presenting something inadvertently triggering, and how had she guarded against this possibility? In response, she said that apart from working closely with her advisors, and taking care to omit any details that seemed to be there for mere detail’s sake, and in particular omitting all numbers and specific eating-less rituals, one of the most helpful strategies for her had been to remember that this was only her own story that she was trying to tell, and indeed only one version of it, not some universally representative tale of illness or recovery.

The other thing Horton said was that what she wanted most for the play was that it should make others feel better able to tell their own stories, and how happy she’d been when someone had said that it had prompted her to go away and write about her own experience. On the information sheet given out as we left, she quotes the chief executive of the UK eating disorders charity Beat, Susan Ringwood, as having understood perfectly what she was trying to do: ‘Eating disorders thrive on secrecy and shame, but Mess brings the illness out into the open in a way that will change both hearts and minds. Its honest and insightful portrayal will bring hope to anyone affected by an eating disorder.’

My partner, who has known me only since I got better, came with me and said that what he’d taken most strongly from the play was an understanding of what anorexia means for the people around the sufferer, the Borises of the world, entirely well meaning and completely out of their depth, always saying slightly the wrong thing or fearing they’re about to. Should it go on tour again, I think seeing the play could in this sense be a really valuable experience for friends and family of someone with anorexia.

He also mentioned something I felt myself, and noticed in a few others: that the fact of the play being about anorexia created a particular self-awareness among the audience. It’s very easy to find yourself wondering why other people are there, what their connection with anorexia is, if any, making assumptions about others despite knowing you shouldn’t, wondering what visibly ill spectators are making of it all, wondering what others are thinking about you. This made for an odd symmetry with the self-aware structure of the play itself: actors playing actors, and spectators watching (themselves being) spectators.

That might be a bit uncomfortable for those who see it not having yet found their way out of illness. Nonetheless, for those people I think there might also be something rather important to be gained from Mess: a glimpse of liberation through laughter. With or without however many layers of self-awareness and awareness of absurdity, there can be real release in those brief moments where reckless abandon takes recovery a breathtaking step further into the unknown:

‘What I’d really like is a Mr Whippy, no flake.’

‘Strawberry sauce?’

‘No.’

‘Anything else?’

‘Definitely not.’

‘I’ve just eaten an ice cream on the beach by choice!’

‘How was it?’

‘Terrifying!’

‘Also a bit nice?’

‘Probably!’

In such moments, life can surge back in like a wave. Of course, as Josephine said, recovery isn’t ‘just eat one ice cream and shout at the sea’ – but daring to do that can be as giddy and as empowering as anything else in life or death or in between.

***

Mess is written by Caroline Horton and directed by Alex Swift. The play is produced by China Plate; its current run is now over, but for more information on the production and its future life, please contact ed@chinaplate.com. Mess is suitable for small and mid-scale international touring, and will be available for both national and international touring from 2015.

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