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Saturday, 21 January 2017

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party by ZooNation

Photo: RoundHouse

Wow! The Mad Hatter's Tea Party was absolutely brilliant. I left the performance at Round House feeling jubilant and excited. This is a fabulously eclectic dance and music show set at the Institute for Extremely Normal behaviour which explores ideas of 'normality' and 'madness'.

Through pure delight in expression, musicality and movement, the show both literally and metaphorically sends ideas spinning, turning so much on its head creating a beautiful, glorious whirl of character, narrative and emotion.This show 'retells' the beloved Alice In Wonderland story and, in doing so, is doing an exciting, much-welcomed job of reshaping narratives of mental health for both individuals and society at large.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party has been created by ZooNation, directed by Kate Prince and is realized by a team of immensely expressive, undoubtedly talented dancers, musicians and performers. I loved how diverse the company is, in terms of race and ethnicity, as well as in terms of the music and dance genres used. For me, the joy of the show lay in its pace- its twists and turns- the sudden jaunty spins in music, in dance, in mood.

The Queen of Hearts played by Teneisha Bonner Photo from Dance Europe.

One of the strengths of the show has to be the depth of character expressed through dance and music. Each character had layers and at once expressed their mental health experiences without reverting to cold and unhelpful stereotypes. The characters were humans in their complicated, messy and wonderful glory- just as every story of mental illness is woven into the story of a life.

Of course, whilst watching I was trying to work out how the characters' experiences might be understood, what names they might be given. Some characters' experiences were more transparent than others; Alice's anxiety around food and her body, for example. The people standing next to me in the audience were 'diagnosing' each character as their story flew into the spotlight. 'That's manic depression', 'that must be schizophrenia', they asserted. I noticed how irritated their judgements made me, as someone with mental health diagnoses. One of their muttered diagnoses of a character was 'sex and love addiction', which I thought was laughably ridiculous. Find me a human who isn't addicted to love in some form or other! That's called humanity, for goodness sake!

I felt that each character expressed a personality and a story that resisted being assigned to the bulletpoints of the NHS website or a diagnosis questionnaire. The audience members who were 'diagnosing' each character as they danced their story was a perfect demonstration of how much we need a shift in social perceptions of mental illness. ZooNation's show demonstrated that mental illness is part of the tapestry of a person, rather than an unflexible definition of their entirety.

I was happy to see trauma implicated in some of the characters' story. The moment where the Red Queen hid weeping under a chair and the story indicated that her experiences in adulthood were a way of repeating and working out difficult childhood experiences.

Some people might ask why a show about mental health wasn't darker than it was. It didn't take me to the despair of mental illness that I have experienced, but it did take me to those celebratory 'I made it' moments. One reason could be that the show was suitable for children. Sometimes when art takes the subject of mental illness and paints it as a 'positive' picture, it can leave me with a sour taste in my mouth, as if the artist is oblivious to the pain, terror and loneliness that can be mental illness. But ZooNation didn't do this to me; it was not saccharine, it did not tell me what I 'should' do, it did not give me holier-than-though advice or meme-like platitudes.

Instead, I left the show feeling joyful and more connected to others through the show's celebratory and accepting tone. I feel like I need to be slightly less cagey, a little less guarded. Some of the tight knots around my own mental health experiences have become a little looser.

Image: RoundHouse

ZooNation finishes at RoundHouse this Sunday. Tickets can be bought here. 

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I would love to hear your comments, but please respect everyone's opinions and experience. Thank you, bpd orchid.