Last month I interviewed performance artist Bryony Kimmings for The Debrief, about what to do when your boyfriend has depression. She and her own (non-performer) boyfriend, Tim Grayburn, have spent the last eight months touring a collaborative show based on just that: their experiences, as a couple, of Tim’s depression.
Following huge acclaim in Australia, last week the couple performed a run of Edinburgh festival previews at London’s Southbank Centre, with Thursday’s performance featuring a post-show discussion with Shân Maclennan, Deputy Artistic Director of Southbank Centre; Rachel Clare, Communications Director of CALM; Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind; consultant psychiatrist Dr Jim Bolton; as well as Bryony and Tim.
The show itself is phenomenally brave, moving and powerful; heart-wrenching yet entertaining, deeply personal yet enormously relatable. From dancing around the stage in their underwear, to revealing the depths of Tim’s despair through snippets of a raw, intimate conversation the couple recorded in their living room, the show beautifully achieves what Bryony promises in its opening: a surreal and poignant blend of light and dark, vividly expressing the experiences of depression and anxiety, and exploring the impact of gender roles on the way men and women talk (or don’t talk) about our feelings.
One of the most powerful techniques, which was referred to repeatedly during the post-show discussion, initially grew out of Tim’s desire not to have to look the audience in the eye. Throughout the performance he appears with his face obscured by masks, goggles, clouds, and other props – at one time a lethargic, emotionless shell in a paper bag; at another, a frantic, panic-stricken animal, wild with fear and confusion. This makes his closing speech to the audience, with his face finally revealed and a very genuine shakiness in his voice, all the more powerful and touching. He moves from this moment of raw honesty to another dance, as he and Bryony hold up signs naming the symptoms of depression while dancing a samba, before closing with a song he wrote for her – and not a single dry eye in the house, least of all Bryony’s.
It is, as Bryony says early on, a love story (“sorry, gross!”) – but one that’s as human and real and beautiful as they get – and perhaps made all the more significant by the fact they conceived their son during the Australian leg of the tour, who appears on stage, in utero, alongside them. Tim kept his mental illness a secret from virtually everyone in his life for eight years, and clearly credits the love and support of “the one” with helping him to seek support, reduce his dosage of anti-depressants, and finally open up to his friends and family – something he says was actually a catalyst for several of his friends to do the same.
Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly bold move to go from total secrecy to playing out your darkest moments on stage in front of thousands of people (especially in your pants!) The shame and sense of failure that he describes feeling about his depression are undoubtedly feelings that many men can relate to, and Tim’s desire to help other men like himself is an incredibly inspiring part of the driving force behind the show.
In the post-show discussion, the issue of engaging men to talk about their mental health was naturally a clear focus, with Stephen and Rachel in particular discussing techniques for reaching out to men in their own terms – approaching conversations about mental health through observations (“I’ve noticed you seem down lately”, “you haven’t seen your friends for a while”), and engaging with men at gigs and football matches, or through men’s interest magazines.
Another key issue was around the support actually available for men when they do reach out – with both Mind and CALM saying that whenever they expand the capacity of their services, there are always more than enough people to fill them. Mind’s Stephen Buckley called on the audience to help the charity hold the government to account for its election promises to improve funding, while CALM’s Rachel Clare suggested we “can’t rely on this government” to adequately fund mental health care.
Despite the obvious political failings that have long existed within the sector, consultant psychiatrist Dr Jim Bolton sounded a more optimistic note, highlighting the huge improvements that have been made in tackling stigma in rent years. While there is obviously still a very long way to go, Fake It ’til You Make It fills a really important hole in that conversation.
Fake It ’till You Make It is on at Latitude Festival tomorrow, Sunday 19 July, before moving on to Edinburgh Festival. Find out more at bryonyandtim.com
For more information and support on men’s mental health, visit CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) or Mind, read my previous work on men’s mental health, or check out Bryony’s advice on supporting your boyfriend.