Give Me Your Love, Battersea Arts Centre

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There’s a fantastic image at the centre of Ridiculusmus’s new show. The sort of image that epitomises the entire piece. The sort of image that says more than any volume of words. The sort of image that sticks firmly to the retina, refusing to be shaken off.

A man is inside a cardboard box. To begin with, the box engulfs him whole. Later, more of his body appears: a pair of legs, a finger, the glow of his smartphone beginning to suggest an outline. But he’s never more than a limb here or there, a voice disconnected from its source. He remains hidden – or perhaps hiding.

The man inside the box is Zach, a Welsh war veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The box – huge and battered – is both a coping mechanism and a visual manifestation of the mental state he carries around with him. He seeks shelter from the outside world, retreating until he’s trapped within the four stifling walls of his own mind.

Trouble is, that simple image is so powerful that the show itself struggles to move beyond it. Visually, the dismal landscape of PTSD is established within moments of the show starting. As Zach, David Woods sits curled up in his box, the room around him grubby, colourless and bare. There’s a gloomy austerity – both material and emotional – to the set design that Jacob Williams has created. The resonances with Zach’s state of mind don’t need pointing out.

Everything that takes place around and within that image, though, runs the risk of obfuscating its potent clarity. What plot there is centres around MDMA-assisted therapy – a genuine treatment under trial for patients with PTSD, and one that Ridiculusmus seeks to dispel the stigma around. Zach hears about the trials via his mate Ieuan, who later comes by with some MDMA that he’s managed to get hold of and attempts to clumsily replicate the therapy process. Let’s say it doesn’t entirely go to plan.

Give Me Your Love is the second in a trilogy of Ridiculusmus shows exploring innovative approaches to mental health, following 2014’s striking The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland. Both shows are theatre of images and impressions. The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland used its form to suggest the experience of psychosis, layering two halves on top of one another and exposing each section of the separated audience to echoes from the other side of the performance. Give Me Your Love is similarly fragmented and similarly baffling – as fragmented and baffling, presumably, as the mental states it is attempting to evoke.

Here, though, that deliberate confusion is less productive. Give Me Your Love does not feel as fully formed or conceptually satisfying as its predecessor. Instead, it is often strangely disengaging. In a way, this is apt. Zach is a man cut off from the world; disconnection is a running thread through the piece. With the exception of one wordless, physical sequence, we never see anyone’s face. Zach is just a pair of legs in green trainers. Playing both Ieuan and Zach’s wife Carol, Jon Haynes is either an arm reaching through a door or a disembodied voice from offstage.

Laughter, meanwhile, is an intermittent and uncertain presence in the show. In keeping with Ridiculusmus’s brand of “seriously funny” theatre, comedy is frequently used in service of the company’s difficult themes, but the hints of farce throughout Zach and Ieuan’s meandering, drawn-out exchange undercut the stark visuals in a way that is as often clunky as it is poignant. And the loose connections suggested between the noise and confusion of ecstasy-fuelled club culture and the noise and confusion of war, forcefully introduced in an early interlude of thumping music and throbbing lights, are never really developed.

In the latter stages of Give Me Your Love, challenged to get out of his box, Zach retorts: “get out of whatever you’re in”. Ridiculusmus want us to get out of our own boxes and open our minds – both in our approaches to mental health and in our approaches to treatment. Whether their approach really opens up this issue or simply clouds it, though, is a question mark that troublingly lingers.

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