Artistic response by Selina Thompson to Life is No Laughing Matter at mac Birmingham Nov 2016
Demi Nandhra begins her show Life is No Laughing Matter, hidden in plain sight.
There is only one person on stage – a young man, sat in front of a macbook, who looks bored, frankly. He looks up from time to time at a custard coloured blob, in centre stage, between two fans. It looks like it might be a bean bag. We hear a dog bark – not in an organised, this is a sound effect from the theatre way – the dog barks and is hastily silenced or taken out, his bark is pre show adrenaline made manifest, and he gives us an inkling of the intimacy that is about to follow, of just how close, skin close, Demi is about to let us be.
When the lights go down, the yellow blob moves, and we realise that Demi has been there, inside it the whole time. She attempts to feed herself, and the show has begun.
Demi is selfish, she tells us. It’s first thing she tells us, and she repeats this throughout the show. She has her boyfriend, Aaron on stage with her, because she needs him to do the show, despite his agoraphobia and hatred of public spaces. She buys a dog, tiny fluffy, white Yoko, who comes on stage and brings chaos with her; even though Aaron doesn’t want one, because she’s read it will help her. She doesn’t take the bits out of the show her mum doesn’t like. It is a show that radiates mischief and humour, cheeky and loveable, messy and rude, a spoilt brat with a distinct brummie accent. It is a delight, impossible not to love.
Because the things is, Demi is not selfish. And Life is No Laughing Matter is one of the least selfish things I’ve seen in some time. It gives and gives to its audience, it sees them in all their complexity and vulnerability and it is honest. Heart stopping, blisteringly honest. This is a show for depression warriors: for those of us who have been down in the trenches, not left the house, not been able to see outside of our own pain, not been able to stop saying those weird things about death. It is a work made in absolute solidarity with those that understand the subject matter, intimately. Skin close.
This is a show that has come from a powerful brain. It constantly reshapes and reforms itself as it looks at depression from every angle, zooms right in on the personal and charges out into the political. What, Demi asks, happens if you end up in jail, where there is no CBT or access to pets? What, she asks, happens if you are diagnosed as an angry black woman and blocked from the support you need? Anticipating the next day’s election results, she reminds us that Depression is Trump, and a whole host of things outside of the control of the individual. Her stage is full of voices, opinions and advice that contradict each other, judge, aid and abet.
She covers all angles – moving smoothly from the fare we would expect – what the symptoms look like, how it feels – into the knotty core of depression, the questions we are afraid to ask – the line between mental illness and your personality, the relationship between productivity, capitalism, mental health and medication, and the way in which wellness is packaged and sold to us. The show is heavy with animal analogies and richly imaginative – dogs, cats, Bengal tigers and unicorns all prowl about its landscape. At one point, she smashes a neon pink unicorn and pills of every colour spill out, as she reflects on her two months on Anti-Depressants growing into two years. She acknowledges her need for them, but her actions give voice to a deep anger about this need, and a system that cannot get her the talking therapy she needs for months, doctors who in the ten minutes they have, don’t talk about side effects or withdrawal.
She explores it all, a restless mind and a fierce intelligence that fights the listlessness of depression at every moment. There was never a stronger argument for just how much people with depression want to get well, and just how much they will try, then a breathless Demi, stuffing her face with bananas (she eats 56 in one week, Peter Andre got potassium poisoning after 10) running from one side of the stage to the other, as she and Katy Perry try to exercise it away.
If Demi is a hurricane, then Aaron is an anchor, the show’s fixed point. He does very little! He looks after Yoko the dog, when Demi is done with her, he cleans up – he fixes the boiler in a recording we hear of the two of them arguing. In the post-show talk when Demi mentions that if she doesn’t take her meds, she’ll be a nightmare the following week, he shouts out from the audience “it’ll be shit!” and I think it’s the only thing he says live all evening. But having him there is such an essential and important part of the show. An act of self-care imbedded in the work itself is not only a radical act, but also a reminder that often where there is someone with depression, there is also a carer. And in the final moments of the post show discussion, it is alluded to that this person also needs support, that this person is also bound up in our depression. Aaron, stoic, calm, sometimes bemused, sometimes bored, is the embodiment of that. I also think he is a little more knowing as a performer then he lets on – his poker face often a perfect counterpoint to whatever Demi is doing.
The show is at its strongest when it is at its darkest – when Demi goes into the territory that I think you only really, truly know when you’ve been through it. When she talks of driving around a roundabout, and not looking right – so that ‘it wouldn’t be her fault, just an accident’ - I recall, so forcefully, saying to a friend ‘it’s not that I want to kill myself – I’d just like to let myself die’ that I stop breathing for a second. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so viscerally recognised and in solidarity with someone. When she stands, speaking of her Uncle’s suicide, and what it takes to just say ‘I’m out’, tapping into what, for me, has always been the darkest, deepest core of chronic depression; fearing it will always be like this, and wondering if your resilience has a limit, I am stood in my old kitchen in Leeds, looking out the window, and thinking – ‘I won’t come back next time, I can’t do this again’. She gets as real as it gets, as close as it gets. Skin close.
I don’t know what it is to have those moments on stage. I don’t know if you do start to heal or any of that. I don’t have the distance to make those statements. I think this is a show that will always be in a place of flux, moving in response to Demi’s relationship to depression at any given time, and this means that it is alive, live, in the truest sense. And because of that, there is an ambivalence in the show I think – a place where depression, an immovable object, comes up against Demi’s resilience, energy and sheer beauty – an unstoppable force – and the show almost ends in a stalemate.
But in those last moments, when the lights go down; as Demi talks about making art as a way to live, the light of the macbook still shines on her partner, and on her dog. And every woman, largely, women of colour, in that room is with her. And even if the object doesn’t move, Demi and her audience have begun to make small cracks in it. And we all live another day.