Depression’s ambiguities

Eleanor Brickhill: Clare Dyson, Churchill’s Black Dog

Avril Huddy, Churchill's Black Dog

Avril Huddy, Churchill’s Black Dog

Avril Huddy, Churchill’s Black Dog

The “black dog”, Winston Churchill’s name for his own depression, is a resonant metaphor suggesting a relentlessness within the self at once inescapable but with a familiarity which seeks mastery: a domesticated companion, dependent and loyal to the death, or a stealthy pursuer, attacking its prey in moments of weakness; something both evil and needy. Either way, it never lets go, so there’s potential romance in this metaphor which creates a fantasy world of epic struggle. For many who saw Clare Dyson’s Churchill’s Black Dog, this challenging and rich mixture yielded a dark and powerful work.

Churchill’s Black Dog is not about the man himself, but his metaphor is a starting point for examining aspects of depression, seeking reality via popular myth. Like the metaphor itself, those myths are composed of half-truths, projection and other defences the mind conjures to protect it from itself. Certainly there’s a popular notion which wants us to believe that suffering is somehow creative and ennobling. Similarly, the theatre can be a safe and glamourised vantage point from which to investigate difficult issues. So to the artists’ credit, the work does not romanticise the issues, attempting instead to depict a debilitating condition—more disease than gift—which also afflicts perfectly ordinary people, eroding their thoughts and stifling their ideas.

But like the metaphor, the medium provides the reality with a certain glamour, as if decoratively laid over experience. Imagery from World War II—performers in pale petticoats carry battered cardboard suitcases, and a 1940s soundtrack—projects a slightly chic nostalgia for familiar values and the fantasised safety of childhood. Half-demolished walls suggest both “slice of life” and dereliction. Bath, table, chair, doorway are places of loneliness and leave-taking and the thick covering of autumn leaves on the floor evokes things fondly remembered as well as detritus, neglect and death.

For a moment, a naked man and woman appear pressed to the wall at the back of stage. Their eyes are closed as if asleep, but their hands reach for each other’s bodies. A girl lies in a bath—there are hard surfaces, the glare of light, ill-health, perhaps blood. A performer carries a suitcase, another collects newspapers, folding them meticulously for some unknown purpose. We see them fold, pack and sweep with immaculate attention, obsessed by a need for order. Performer Brian Lucas sits at the table talking about writing, forming the letters, folding the paper, licking the stamp—all dry, meaningless tasks fulfilling only the mechanics of work, designed to have the appearance of normality, but trivial, obsessive, and made important by the requirements of despair to cling to recognisable, if useless, order.

The fantasy of saving someone, nursing them back from the brink, is replaced by the reality of annoyance with the afflicted, a pretence of concern and the avoidance of the ill. Lucas’ text vividly depicts how damaged people project their own weakness onto others. Curled up under the table, he begins a soft mantra with apparent compassion—”I’m worried about you, are you all right? Can’t you make an effort?”—phrases which become progressively more accusing, until their persecutory nature is revealed in the screamed “You’re pathetic!” Later he recites a litany of facile tips for the deeply depressed (“Take warm baths”, “Visit friends”), which become in turn justification for further persecution.

Epic aggression and naked ambition are also features of depression, themes not as well developed in this work as helplessness and futility, but very telling when looking at the life of a man who coined the phrase the “black dog.”

Churchill’s Black Dog, Created by Clare Dyson in collaboration with performers Avril Huddy, Brian Lucas, Vanessa Mafe-Keane, Elise May; ANU Arts Centre, Canberra, Sept 14-16

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 38

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005