Not all art needs to be healing or socially responsive, and there’s virtue in expressing the pure truth of a feeling or situation. Natalie Medlock’s Near Death Experience attempts to show the depressed mind on the brink of chaos, not as a story of recovery but simply as a fact. And, at its most incisive, this is as blunt and lucid portrayal of this perspective as you’re likely to see.
Truth in itself risks becoming demonstrative for the sake of it though, particularly if no insight is offered. I’m reminded of the criticisms that plagued the work of Sarah Kane, calling out its confessional, dangerous bleakness. Medlock’s play similarly suffers and relishes in this, with a similarly black humour but without the radical experimentation of form and structure.
Played out as a domestic drama centered around the recovery (or non-recovery) of Tabby (Amanda Tito), a young woman who spends her days struggling with existential ennui after an attempted suicide. The tenuous ties to her world are limited to the support of her father Billy (Peter Hambleton) and the return of her mother Agnes (Bronwyn Bradley).
The characters are clearly defined and provide fascinating performances; you can see each actor working hard to find the truth in the bleak scenario and confines of the text. Tito’s Tabby is appropriately tunnel-visioned, offering little variation besides depressed and depressingly snarky. If the character comes across one-note on paper, in Tito’s capable hands there is a sharpness to her edges, not just the monochromatic tones of dreary grey.
Hambleton grounds the piece with an unexpected naturalism that unveils nuance in the archetype of the older kiwi male. His interactions with Tito also offer a glimpse of hope and poignancy to an otherwise shapeless arc. The closest thing to a human connection are the deeply felt exchanges between them, shared moments of humour and camaraderie.
Bradley has the least forgiving role but she embodies it with commitment, even if it means the performance bulldozes through every scene she’s in. The strained relationship between her and the other two characters offers an uncomfortable portrayal of familial disconnection, but never as more than grotesque caricature. While the hysterical note that it’s pitched at often distracts rather than adds to the narrative, she mines some crude and uncomfortable laughs from the script.
The play occasionally breaks away from its living room setting and offers a glimpse into Tabby’s inner-world, featuring a chicken-headed Carl Jung (aka Abraxis) played by Fasitua Amosa. It’s funny, and delivered with a pitch perfect, deadpan quality, but never elevates itself beyond a visual gag. For such a bold escapist concept, it’s surprisingly underwhelming; the equivalent of a few new-age wikipedia entries tossed into a blender with a conservative quarter-tab of LSD.
Medlock’s own directorial decisions eschew too closely to reality, sitting within a realism that undermines the uneasy spirituality of the text. The staging feels perfunctory and it begs the question of whether the play would be best served in more visually daring or conceptually bold hands. Attempts are made with a peeling wallpaper backdrop, but the resulting aesthetic falls flat. For a play that teases with the dark, symbolic unconscious mind, the literalness of the production feels conservative.
The play’s strongest thread is that of a father desperately trying to save his daughter and perhaps confronting his own existential dread in the process. This potentially heartbreaking journey is confused by too much dramaturgical clutter. But if narrative and structure is lacking in the script, the dialogue is often unafraid to really go there and hurt its characters.
While a difficult play to recommend, those looking to explore the darkside of mental illness aren’t likely to find a more relentless portrayal than in Tito’s Tabby. If this production sacrifices pathos at the expense of playing too hard at being a comedy, it manages to toy with our confused funny bones in some unexpected places. Those seeking conscientious portrayals, and sentimental consolations, however, should look elsewhere.
Near Death Experience plays at The Basement until 4 August.