Teenage suicide and mental illness are handled with care by Replay Productions
An ‘issue’ play about teenage depression, suicide, bereavement and its aftermath was never going to be an easy one to produce convincingly, requiring as it does that near-mythical balance between educating audiences while simultaneously engaging them.
In utilising the verbatim style of theatre – first professionally pioneered in Northern Ireland in 2009 in Tinderbox’s excellent Sleep Eat Party – Replay Productions director David Fenton and writer Gary Owen have chosen a subject as topical as it is tragic.
The use of the Verbatim format inevitably lends an authenticity to Bulletproof and a credibility that is so often lacking when writers attempt to put words into the mouths of teenagers.
Owen's task was to take the real words of young people living in Belfast to create his characters (composites of many real voices), and curate the script into something workable and dramatically convincing.
The characters in question are teen siblings Michael and Alex – one of whom, it quickly becomes apparent, has taken their own life.
Michael, played by Brian Markey is excitable, painfully enthusiastic one moment and terse and unhappy the next, while his sister Alex, although smiling, always seems just on the verge of falling apart.
Michael talks about throwing himself into his exams and activities – expecting nothing less than perfection. It’s revealed that he’s taking medication for bi-polar disorder: 'Tablets made me good at things, like physics and history.' No child of any age can sustain that kind of perfection, and the mania that accompanies it, and we can guess at some of dreadful outcome.
Alex, played by Kerry Cleland, talks about her own sadness. When she reveals that she has been diagnosed as having something called ADHD, like she’s been told she has a bit of cold, again, it’s a moving moment. Young people don’t want to be fettered with tags and conditions that set them apart as ‘other’ from their peers – the tendency to not ‘say when your head's away’ is unfortunately the norm.
In spite of the frontline work being done by notable organisations, the chipping away at the taboo of suicide and getting young people to open up is always going to be an uphill task. Replay recognise this and have avoided some of the more off-putting and proselytising cliché that can beset some educational theatre.
While Michael and Alex gradually reveal their stories, sharing space but not necessarily time, the play is interspersed with bold statements, facts and quotations relating to teen depression and suicide – these are emblazoned across the set, unavoidably punctuating the performances and reminding us constantly that this is theatre as documentary, theatre with an agenda.
We’re brusquely informed about some of the sensitivities at play when talking about suicide, such as the inappropriateness of using the phrase to ‘commit suicide’; the word ‘commit’ suggests a criminal act has been performed and therefore adds an unshakeable and damning stigma to the act.
It becomes further clear as the play progresses that both Michael and Alex aren’t talking to each other – they are ghosts and memories in each other's presence. Director Fenton allows them both to address us, themselves and just occasionally, we get an inkling that their exchanges may be (by default or design) mutually meaningful or at least synchronistic.
This act of chronological cut-and-paste of the dialogue disorientates the time line in a way that creates a kind of ambient theatre at times. This is aided and abetted by one of the finest theatrical soundtracks I’ve heard in a while. Composer Garth McConaghie has managed to capture the essence of Bulletproof with a swirling, subtle and atmospherically measured score.
Satisfyingly, the journey taken by Michael and Alex does not lead us to any easy answers, and by the end the viewer is left wanting to know more. Fenton himself has said that if this play gets young people at least asking questions then it will have been successful – I think it’s a fairly safe bet that that will happen.
The performances of Brian Markey and Kerry Cleland are spirited without being totally inspired – but that’s not to unduly criticise. Taking the real words and real sentiments of young people was never going to be easy for other young actors. Some things are just too close to be imitated comfortably and Markey and Cleland do part-capture some of the feel.
Is Bulletproof theatre or is it an educational tool? The answer is, of course, both. Taking a leaf from the world of factual reportage and making it fit for theatrical purpose, Replay has not only presented one of their more uncompromising works for young people but perhaps one of their most important.
Bulletproof is a play that, in the wrong hands, could have easily had all the edges removed in favour of a comfy sand-papered sentiment that abrogated any potential impact. Luckily Fenton, Owen and indeed Replay have grasped the nettle and made a bold, emotional, unflinching but ultimately ambivalent piece of theatre that will surely resonate with the young audience it is principally intended for.