Dissecting the modern epidemic of mental illness and male suicide (and specifically the language we use to talk about it), Alex McSweeney’s Distance is intelligently written, ambitious in its experimentation with form, visually immaculate and performed with conviction.
Alex McSweeney explores an epidemic in (and arguably of) masculinity with Distance – an assured, albeit unusual, 90-minute look at the impact of mental illness on the individual and those around them, in the more intimate of the Park Theatre’s two spaces.
Fine Line’s production is visually immaculate: Bethany Wells’ accomplished set, Dan Saggars’ evocative lighting and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s foreboding sound working effectively to emulate the claustrophobic and unsettling trappings of central character Steven’s mind.
Played with sensitivity and conviction by Adam Burton, Steven has bumped into an old acquaintance (who turns out to be going for the same job as him) en route to an interview. The train journey seems to become an astute metaphor for Steven’s experience of battling with the fragments of his recent past, and present suicidal urges; McSweeney experiments with form as scenes collide and overlap as the inner workings of Steven’s mind are encouraged to unravel by the enigmatic ‘Duke’ character (a show-stealing – charismatic but equally haunting – performance, in my opinion, by Richard Corgan).
Occasionally, the text becomes perhaps unnecessarily intellectual and a little distancing for those without degrees in English literature (Steven and Alan, academics themselves, discuss James Joyce – for example – in perhaps more detail than necessarily aids the narrative thread) – and Distance perhaps takes 10 minutes longer than you’d like it to, to warm up and find its ‘mojo’. But McSweeney’s writing excels where the scenes begin to seep in, and pollute, each other – and performances are captivating across the board.
In addition to Corgan’s ridiculous but wholly convincing ‘Duke’ (who one begins to question the legitimacy of – though Alan sees and speaks to him too, he certainly doesn’t quite seem ‘of this world’), I particularly enjoyed Doreene Blackstock’s kind-hearted but nuanced Folami – a door-to-door Evangelist – too. The unavoidable gender and race politics of the scene where Stephen intimidates, and almost lashes out at her, when all she simply wants to do is listen and help – are another moment, though, which doesn’t necessarily aid the development of the central narrative thread. I must admit I found Stephen very difficult to forgive, and get behind again, after that moment. Perhaps this is the point – that those suffering with mental illness are oft flawed and not just ‘victims’, but McSweeney play is perhaps unusual in how difficult it is to ‘like’ the character of Steven.
Distance is smart, however, in its scrutiny of language. Steven – and those he encounters – treat the audience to all sorts of euphemisms: we hear he’s ‘in the muddy pit’ and ample references to the ‘black dog’. The Duke, himself, may well be a euphemism of sorts also. McSweeney’s canny observation that no one wants to call these things out for exactly what they is – in other words, use the words ‘depression’ or ‘suicide’ without fear of accusations of sensationalism – is perhaps the greatest contributor to why male suicide is the contemporary epidemic it is. So although Distance doesn’t present any clear-cut answers (what could, frankly!?), McSweeney’s argument – that language society deems ‘acceptable’ to use can actually haze, conceal and contain our feelings rather than facilitate openness, makes the Park Theatre’s production unique, timely and intelligent.