By Dina Ustovic
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Shrouded in darkness with a menacing voice reverberating, M[e]ntal opens with E.M; our worst fears personified. M[e]ntal’s premise is simple yet effective. How do we deal with the ramifications of mental health? Performed by True North Youth Ensemble and directed by Alirio Zavarce, the show has created a work that helps adolescents explore mental health and express their concerns in a safe and productive environment.
M[e]ntal is a perfect entryway to understanding mental health for a younger demographic, which is only helped by the performance of its cast. True North is filled with a talented young ensemble who each provide a unique perspective which helps inform their roles. They are a delight to watch on stage with a carefree rapport that brings a respite between heavier moments. It is apparent that this show is important to them as each scene is carefully crafted and acted with an intensity that only comes from truly valuing an idea or message. Their enthusiasm is tangible which enhances the idea that the show is informed by lived experiences and strategies.
Informed by a younger cast, it is this relatability that helps the show. An older audience may view the ideas and positive mental health strategies as too simplistic and therefore less valuable in its content. To a younger teenage demographic, m[e]ntal is a digestible and serviceable show that helps generalise mental health. It provides easy and positive strategies in an accessible format to this demographic. Its core belief of shared support is lovely to watch play out on stage.
However, it is this simplicity that may also be to m[e]ntal’s detriment. In an effort to maintain a generalised approach, the show reinforces negative stigmas surrounding labelling mental health. M[e]ntal wants to reject the idea of labels and continuously reminds us that labelling others can be dismissive of an individual’s complexities. However, in the same stroke they dismiss realistic traits that an individual could exhibit. For example, the character that exhibits traits common within ADHD is often told to simply focus. This dismissiveness plays into problematic language use and can reinforce negative stereotypes. The real-life consequences of such a portrayal could result in teenagers refusing to get support in fear they will be dismissed as well. This idea of labels/labelling could be improved by allowing a more nuanced and complex look into mental health that allows labels to be properly utilised without fear of stigmatisation.
M[e]ntal is a performance that is a delight to watch for its talented cast in and of itself. Yet its overall simplicity and naivety, whilst serviceable to a younger demographic, lacks any real emotional nuance and realism for an older demographic. However, as a play written for and by young people, m[e]ntal allows a safe environment for these ideas to be freely explored in a world where these environments can be sorely lacking. And that should not be discredited. Three stars.
Photo by Tony Virgo.