It’s not possible for the audience to hide in the darkness in the Young Vic’s Maria Studio because there isn’t any. Throughout the show the lights remain on and the audience can see every bead of sweat, every grimace, cutting smile and flick of the eye in Mark Lockyer’s physiognomy as he describes his battle with Manic Depression. He can also see the audience. A match has been lit, a mirror erected, so that the audience can peer into the depths of humanity with all its contradictions and humbling, vulnerable nakedness.

Lockyer and director Ramin Gray do not attempt to create any theatrical illusion or trickery. A lone prop table adorns the playing area from which tea and biscuits is served to the audience as they take their seats. A couple of carpets, a ladder, some of the Young Vic’s infamous benches stacked against the breeze blocks, the floor looking just about swept by the stage manager, all contribute to the feeling of a “found space”. This might be a support meeting the audience has stumbled in on by chance, certainly it is how the illness crept up on Lockyer.  But, despite the geniality and informality of the setting, we are in for some proper theatrical “wizardry” and not just from Artistic Directors.

The magic is Lockyer himself. He begins his story describing a simple scene on a lazy day lying in his briefs on his sofa in Putney. But even here, as Lockyer disposes speechifying and uses hyperbolic gestures to punch home meaning as he listens to Robbie Williams’ Karma Killer, we begin to feel that something is not quite right. Speech is a trap, it is sometimes double think.  Then, the telephone rings. It’s Adrian Noble, the then artistic director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, offering him the part of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. From here on in, to say nothing is quite the same is an understatement.  In Stratford as he portrays himself unraveling at a fast rate of knots, Lockyer morphs into memorable hilarious imitations of the people in his life, from Poppy his other girlfriend at the RSC, to a policeman who jokes about him being in The Bill, not forgetting the characterisation of the devil, who appears intermittently as an American Tourist.

The actor’s mental collapse may have happened in 1995 and the play has been some time in the making, but it feels like Lockyer is living every moment on stage for the first time. The raw distress behind the humour rubs up against the joy he receives from performing and he embraces them all, as if in revenge against real life and paying homage to his opening words in a recent Guardian article “I found performing on stage excruciating yet it provided a sense of relief from myself.” But the darkness and Lockyer’s courageous confessional mode is brought in to light relief with a lot of humour, not least this night when he calls out critic Michael Coveney, makes jokes at the press’ expense and desperately tries to stop breaking into laughter himself as he imitates his GP. This moment, with actor and audience bonding through their inability to stop laughing, is entirely unprecedented and symptomatic of the spirit of the play. Emotion is all, though the reason for the tears pricking the back of one’s eyelids may be ambiguous.

This one hour and fifteen minute experiential play that is wonderfully economic in its storytelling is asking crucial questions.  What is the difference between truth and illusion? How close is their relationship as Lockyer uses one to find the other? What comfort can art offer if it provides no shelter from cold truths? Director Ivo von Hove writes that Austrian author Hofmannsthal said of Ibsen “A real piece of art always has to be an expression of a cry.” It may seem strange to start talking about Ibsen here, but after all, he too writes about “crises of the soul” and not always using realism as a genre. It is interesting to note that Hofmannsthal does not state what the quality of the cry should be, but perhaps that is best left to the times it reflects. Here, as Lockyer recovers and learns how to live “with the lights on” and manage his manic depression, the cry might be said to be ecstatic.

On at the Young Vic Theatre until 23rd Dec. 

Image: Mark Lockyer in Living With the Lights On at the Young Vic. Photo © Simon Annand.

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