A new play called Rocket Man, set in 1976 and about a young man with bipolar disorder, is heading to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. While the story is set 42 years ago, the stigma the lead character Tristan faces as a man with mental illness, and his attempted suicide, are both very current. Right now, suicide is the biggest killer of young men in Britain, and while campaigns like #TimetoTalk are gathering steam, people still face profound prejudice when their illnesses become known. The play is about not only the victims or mental illness, but their friends and families.
We spoke to writer Tess Humphrey about the play and her hopes for its success.
One&Other: First things first, what is this play about?
Tess Humphrey: In London, 1976, a young man called Tristan is suffering with acute bipolar disorder. Through a jumble of pop culture influences and things from his past, he becomes convinced that the world is ending and he needs to lead the colonisation of the moon. The obsession and the mania drive him to attempt suicide, and the play follows the next month in his life. His sister and friend clash on how they should treat him, so it’s a look at mental illness from the point of view of the person with the illness, their friends and family.
O&O: Is this anything to do with the song Rocket Man?
TH: It was a conscious choice to call it that of course, but that connection didn’t come til quite late in the development of the idea. At the time, I asked around a lot of people, and the song seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. To me it sounds very much like it’s about someone who is suffering delusions of grandeur while his life falls apart. You know, his wife and kids are leaving, but he’s fantasising that he’s a famous lauded astronaut. Maybe there is no one definitive meaning, but it’s such an incredible song, and in my mind it evokes the setting of the play very well.
O&O: When mental health is such a big talking point in 2018, why set the play in 1976?
TH: This play has a really weird genus. My first instinct was for it to be a turnaround comedy - like, it’s a typical old British sci-fi where Dr Who or whoever turns up to tell you they’re an alien and you’re going into space, except you make a sharp turn into realism and the person is actually just mentally ill. Then you unpack it, and evolves from being a joke into being a serious look at mental illness, and delusions of grandeur and why mental illness so often manifests as people feeling that they aren’t human.
The 1970s is a good era to tell that story, with The Man Who Fell to Earth, Hitchhiker’s Guide, David Bowie, T Rex, and so many creative voices saying “I don’t identify with other people, I am an alien.”
The Baby Boomer voice is just really interesting in general. In terms of mental health and emotional expression, it was the first generation in a long time that hadn’t been militarised. You’ve got at least two generations before hand who were forced into the military, then suddenly this generation with huge amounts of freedom. The people in this play are hinged between the old way that you can never speak about your problems and all mental illness is shameful, and the new way that it has to be spoken about. It’s a very interesting time in history.
O&O: You’ve been speaking about mental health issues in your plays for ten years now. Have you noticed a change in that time?
TH: Definitely, and it’s been good and bad. To some degree it’s seen as positive to talk about it now, whereas years ago you were default seen as seeking attention and told to pull yourself together. I think the average person in Britain now realises that mental illness is real and not something that’s easy to treat.
However, the way we speak about mental illness at the minute is very shaped by social media. People are hungry for “inspiring” content, and afraid of anything uncomfortable. So while there is a big upswing in support for people saying “I have mental health problems”, there is still a lot of fear and prejudice towards people speaking in detail over long periods of time about the realities of how that illness impacts your life.
Rocket Man isn’t just about depression, it’s about someone with a severe delusion and behavioural problems. These are things people are still treating with a lot of judgement and mistrust. Hopefully soon we will be able to talk about them the same way we say “I have the flu.”
O&O: Why Edinburgh Fringe?
TH: It is literally the biggest theatre platform in the world! Imagine going somewhere where people have specifically come on holiday to watch plays! At EdFringe we have the potential to be seen by over a thousand people and they might be from anywhere in the world, the potential scope is just fantastic. EdFringe is really the Superbowl for thespians.
O&O: What are you raising money for?
TH: The costs of doing this are incredible. It’s been £393 to register the show for the Fringe programme, and will be £500-ish to transport our equipment to Scotland and back. We’re paying £150 to get a trailer made, and to print our flyers will be £76. Any donations we get would be an enormous help. I absolutely believe that stories like this need to be told, and our messages shared. If we can get one more person to be more understanding of people with mental illness, then it will have changed something for the better, and I know we can do it.
O&O: When and where can we see Rocket Man?
TH: Rocket Man is on at 4pm every day from 11-26 August at Laughing Horse @ Mockingbird, Newington Road, Edinburgh. You can learn more about us by looking through the #RocketManPlay on twitter.
CLICK BELOW TO SUPPORT THE PLAY THROUGH GO FUNDME:ROCKET MAN GOFUNDME