Theatre review: Surfacing

by **

Dear Dad

I am depressed; my inability to write something worthy of Tracey Mathers’ latest play is making me depressed. Today depression is used so casually in idle complaints that it is often waved off with a wink and a laugh. But when someone you know and one you love confides to be suffering from depression, as a mental disorder, you freeze, you bite your lip, drop your eyes, then you look away.

Through Surfacing Mathers, herself a sufferer of depression for 20 years, takes you into the world of depression. Inviting the audience into a living room — one even gets the choice of sitting on a lounge-room couch — she mercilessly plunges you straight into her characters’ troubled minds, into no doubt bits of her own mind, and into the minds of millions of those suffering from this mental health problem.

Mathers plays Natalie, a struggling actress incapable of sustaining a love relationship. Self-critical with a low self-esteem, she is regarded by those close to her as moody, until she discloses her medical diagnosis. Gary, her brother and AFL player, is generous with understanding in his own boyishly awkward way, while Kate, a childhood friend and a new mother, is unstinting with her words of encouragement and reaffirmation.

But this is a story that highlights the stoic silence of many afflicted rather than the openness of a rare few ones brave enough to reveal what they believe is an embarrassing condition. While Kate may seem like the doting mother (if a little weary from strains of motherhood), what Natalie does not know is that her friend is drowning in frustration with the baby’s incessant crying, in irritation, in her urge to smother him.

Besides showing how the illness has no respect for gender, for class, or for profession, the staging confirms the notion the least suspecting often tends to be the most vulnerable. No one wants to believe that Gary, at the prime of his football career and earning “squillions” of dollars would be grappling with anything more than an injured knee, a tiff with his fiancee and a spot of dabbling with drugs.

There is a surreal, somewhat chilling, quality in Nathan Gilkes’ high energy production that blurs the line between the real and the imagined. But, surely, this must be how things appear in the minds of the depressed, tilted so that we too feel their bewilderment and despair.

If there is one criticism that holds it back from being a flawless play, however, it is that too often Mathers stands with her back to some audience members that robs them of precious nuances in facial expressions and distracts them from the fast unfolding drama.

That said, this is a hugely effective piece of theatre: it touches on society’s ignorance about depression (as exemplified in a TV ad satire), it examines communities’ dismissive tendencies, and sufferers’ overwhelming shame that results from it. In exploring how the illness can be organic, caused by hormonal changes or triggered by circumstantial difficulties, Mathers reminds us that all of us are susceptible, and to open our hearts, our eyes and our ears to those around us.

Surfacing is a tremendous ensemble performance in which Mathers is undoubtedly in her element as Natalie, and where Sarah Hamilton gives her character Kate a deeply haunting and unforgettable aura. Kane Felsinger’s Steve, in representing the face of the innocent society, is a bundle of fitness who commands the stage with exception, while JR Richards’ Gary is utterly convincing as the drug-user.

So, the next time, when someone says (or does not say) they are low, sad, or depressed, look up, into their eyes, and listen in.