In the Shadow of the Mountain explores the intricacies of Borderline Personality Disorder through the prism of a fractured relationship, with humour and accuracy. Despite some issues with timeline and characterisation, it’s a powerful show and a worthwhile watch for educational and emotional impact.
Currently at the Old Red Lion Theatre, In the Shadow of the Mountain is a hard-hitting drama about the impact of severe mental illness on relationships and the people in them. Ellie (Felicity Huxley Miners) crashes into Rob’s (David Shears) life when he least expects it; with their whirlwind romance taking off and disintegrating in just a few weeks fuelled by Ellie’s battle with her mental health. In all honesty, processing this piece has been an interesting experiment in learning to extrapolate one’s own expectations and experiences from what was actually shown, given that some of this hit far too close to home. First and foremost, this play would have definitely benefited from a trigger warning as the contents would be challenging to observe for those who experience mental health problems themselves, and those who love or live with those who do. This is not a means of censorship as these experiences need to be explored in public forums to shed light and in a manner that humanises these often intangible issues, rather a plea for sensitivity in doing so.
Opening scene: Ellie approaches a forlorn Rob at a train station when she believes him to be about to commit suicide; an ironic foreboding of things to come. From their unconventional meet, their relationship blossoms overnight, fueled by Ellie’s intense nature and Rob’s compliant one. Throughout the course of the show, writer Felicity Huxley Miners neatly traverses the intricacies of a complex illness and the pressures associated with close contact with those who suffer with it. Frankly, as the audience is introduced to Ellie, her eccentricities read as irritating. She is brash, unaware and unwaveringly intense yet throughout the play we develop a real sense of sympathy for her, as her quirks are revealed to be inextricably bound to the impulses of her neurodivergence, causing her to act out in ways that society deems unacceptable. I believe that some people in the audience may have questioned the authenticity of the portrayal of Borderline Personality Disorder, due to the heightened nature of Ellie’s state. However, now that Crazy Ex Girlfriend demonstrates an extreme case of BPD on primetime television, there’s greater awareness and license to portray this condition in its untreated state.
At times, In the Shadow of the Mountain edgsd dangerously close to consolidating the all-too-well-known narrative of young women who ‘stalk’ their partners being ‘crazy’. The play feels like it almost requires an audience with some understanding of mental illness, lest it be misconstrued to affirm negative stereotypes. That being said, Ellie is played for conflicted compassion, utilising common traits of ‘obsessive’ girlfriends and comedy to cultivate a dynamic in which her actions (though extreme) are somewhat plausible. The issue falls in the plausibility of Rob’s compliance in this. The audience are predominantly aligned with Rob’s perspective, making our sympathies align with him over her. Their relationship moves so quickly that it feels insincere, which in some ways it is, but the final scene seems to counter this argument. Quite simply, three weeks is not a time frame which allows this to feel impacting. Though the writer plays for laughs when referring to the compact time frame, it is essentially the plays undoing. The linear constraints of the format seem to restrict creativity and force a reliance on realism that is sometimes strained. I can’t help but feel that whilst the content is compelling, there might have been a more intelligent way to explore this.
Huxley Miners gives the stronger performance of the two (though they both have their merits), exploring the expanse of the range of emotions in a well-characterised role. The focus on their relationship, rather than Ellie’s illness, is an intelligent move to allow for space to indirectly exhibit aspects of BPD that many people won’t have considered. Theoretically, this should make both roles equally interesting, however, unfortunately Rob largely serves as a contrast to Ellie’s mood swings, falling flat and a little characterless. Ellie is undoubtedly emotionally manipulative, but the question of culpability retains the audience’s sympathy when she is at her worst.
The simple set, a black room with furniture and fixtures added with masking tape, makes for an apt metaphor for their relationship; a rushed attempt masking as a home. It’s effective, allowing the action to shine against its blank canvas. Despite some clunky sex scenes, the direction is fluid and exhibits strong characterisation of a complex individual largely well.
In the Shadow of the Mountain grapples with some really dense and challenging content, in both a moving and whimsical fashion, which is no easy feat. Though there are certainly flaws, at times falling into cliche and melodrama, I was left reeling and with a multitude of questions about how one navigates self-care vs. caring for someone who is mentally ill.