Gods & Kings

Paul Whittaker
Four In Four / The Riverfront
The Studio, The Riverfront, Newport
to

To coincide with World Mental Health Day, Gods & Kings commences a Welsh tour, revamped from its original presentation a couple of years ago. It is brought to us by Four in Four, a company comprising Paul Whittaker and Tamsin Griffiths, multidisciplinary artists dedicated to the authentic portrayal of mental illness, informed by their own experiences.

The play is substantially autobiographical, focussing on Whittaker’s diagnosis of bipolar manic depression in the 1990s, while he was a student at Newport Film School.

The action unfolds on a set (designed by Deryn Tudor) featuring a number of classical-style pillars and a plain chair. As the audience filter in, we see two figures in place, both apparently engrossed in crossword puzzles. These are Robert Bowman’s Paul and sign-language interpreter Sami Thorpe, dressed identically in pyjama-style trousers and hooded tops.

Our narrative begins in downbeat style, with Paul in a mental health clinic, telling us of receiving his diagnosis and being given a factsheet about his condition, citing celebrities who are fellow sufferers (one of whom has, unfortunately, recently killed himself). He is also informed of his treatment options, primarily a compound of lithium, and outlines his situation in stark, possibly simplistic terms: “take the pill and live, or don’t take the pill and die.”

Paul makes it clear that, from childhood onwards, he has always thought of himself as exceptional, equivalent to the gods and heroes of antiquity—Zeus, King Arthur etc; the pillars light up when they are cited. This specialness manifests itself in various ways, includng a tendency to stand up heroically for the rights of others (but not himself), a paranoia about being stabbed, the occasional blackout and the inclination to be, sometimes, “a bit of a dick”. The question arises of whether this uniqueness will evaporate if he is “cured”; whether his illness is, in fact, the essence of who he is.

Whittaker’s script is witty and wide-ranging, long on self-deprecation, short on self-pity. It delineates, with great skill, the extent to which his mental illness both enriches his inner life and provokes suicidal despair.

Bowman, returning to the role in this new iteration, is both spiky and sympathetic, giving an impression of someone who might be equally amusing and exasperating to be around. The most innovative aspect of Whittaker and Griffith’s directorial approach, though, is the full integration of the graceful Thorpe into the action—sometimes observing, sometimes centre-stage, she seems to symbolise Paul’s studied detachment from his condition.

Over the hour or so of its duration, Gods & Kings constantly entertains, instructs and surprises, the lighting (by Chris Illingworth) and sound effects conveying disturbance without, other than at crucial moments, going over the top.

Chronologically speaking, the tale does not take us much beyond Paul’s diagnosis. The fact, though, that two decades on, this show has come into existence suggests that he appears to have achieved some kind of equilibrium. As was the case on the night I attended, audiences will to a large extent comprise those with experience of or a professional or family interest in mental health issues. They, as well as others, will be rewarded with valuable insights, as well as guilty chuckles.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith