The new play from student theatre company Tambourgi Productions is an ambitious and often shocking evocation of the experience of mental illness. As the play opens the heroine, Cath Harrow, is sitting in her flat on her birthday, growing increasingly desperate. After fielding a prickly call from her alcoholic mother, she phones her ex-boyfriend Ed at his Buddhist retreat in France and finds out he has a new girlfriend. Although Pierrot, a David Bowie-like clown from the play she’s writing who’s literally taken on a life of his own and become her only friend, tries to console her, she is soon on a downward spiral.
Cath suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), an underrepresented form of mental illness whose symptoms include up-and-down emotions, difficulty making and maintaining relationships, self-harm and a fear of being rejected or abandoned – or, as Cath describes it, “You lurch around in between moments trying to scrape up enough happiness to keep yourself alive”. Weathering Lows was accompanied by a campaign to raise greater awareness of BPD, and the play itself is a complex exploration of how mental illness is perceived by the sufferer and by others.
From her opening grimace as she prepares to take the call from her mother to her final delirium, Lixie Stott fully embodies the difficult role of Cath. She captures the subtle degrees of all the character’s, as the title suggests, highs and lows, swinging between anxiety and rage and raw honesty and manipulation. Her interactions with Ed as he ineffectually tries to help her also offer opportunities for humour of the blackest kind. When he says “I heard you committed suicide”, she replies “Well, I’m not that good at it.”
Despite the fact that Ed doesn’t understand her writing, her intelligence, or her illness, Cath is still desperate for proof that he cares about her – as she says about love, in a line with lyrical echoes of the play’s Brontëan roots (Cath was named after Cathy Earnshaw, the heroine of Wuthering Heights), “It’s only people like me, who have it constantly torn away, who know how it lights up the sky.” In its first act Weathering Lows deliberately flirts with the stereotypes of mentally ill women as ‘bunny-boilers’ – Pierrot references the notorious Fatal Attraction scene, and Cath is self-aware enough to ask Ed not to tell her his new girlfriend’s name so she won’t be tempted to stalk her. As she warns him, “You know you’re not clever enough to get away from me, don’t you?” But thanks to Stott’s outstanding performance, the audience could see the mental fracturing that drives Cath’s extreme behaviour. “How sick she must have been already to do that”, Pierrot explains.
Furthermore, the second act undermines any easy preconceptions the audience may have formed of the heroine with ruthless efficiency. Weathering Lows does not follow the Shakespearean model of the play whose characters’ fates are forewarned from the opening prologue. Instead, it heads into unpredictable and ever darker territory as Ed’s character turns out to be much more than the well-meaning bumbler he initially seemed, and his efforts to ‘help’ Cath turn dangerous. Earlier, Cath has railed against the ‘nice’ people who never see the harm their self-absorbed actions do; now, Weathering Lows suggests that the doctors are as ‘mad’ as the patients in a society which tries to cure mentally ill people without understanding or compassion. Andrew Foster was also excellent in the role of Ed, maintaining a level of softly-spoken mildness which made his character’s later actions even creepier by contrast.
The device of Cath’s interactions with the fictional Pierrot introduces some playfully metafictional touches, such as a recurring argument between them over whether she caused the roof of his barn to collapse, and some piercing insights into the appeal of creating fiction for the unhappy – “That’s writers for you, always wanting to control a world.” However, Anthony Rickman could have developed the character more strongly as a counterbalance to Ed, since his scenes with Cath sometimes felt flat compared to the rest of the play.
Overall, Weathering Lows was a work of such striking originality and unsettling power that I left the theatre with my brain spinning in my skull. As the play shows, sympathy and understanding for the mentally ill are hard to reach, but by immersing the viewer in Cath’s head, it does what fiction should do and allows audiences a glimmer of experience of lives beyond our experiences.