Talking Heads reporter Calum Tyler reviews Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes.
Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes tells the story of one of Britain’s most renowned mountaineers, an accomplished inventor, a photographer, a stuntman and an author whose writings and inventions have contributed a lot to mountain rescue. Yet this documentary doesn’t entirely focus on this man’s achievements. Director Robbie Fraser instead structures the film around the time that Hamish suffered from memory loss and had to be sectioned.
The documentary begins with three of Hamish’s most prominent friends, including actor and traveller Michael Palin, giving quick appraisals of his works, achievements and personality. However, the film’s story turns around quite quickly as it addresses the time Hamish spent in a mental hospital. Hamish had been found disorientated outside his home in Glencoe and had been sectioned in a psychiatric hospital in the Highlands against his will. He was suffering from severe memory loss which was caused by a urinary tract infection.
The film proceeds to tell stories of Hamish’s life through interviews with Hamish MacInnes, archival footage, re-enactments and photos from his vast archive. The stories tell how he got into climbing, his expeditions, his rescue missions, his inventions and his experiences working on big blockbuster movies such as The Eiger Sanction. As well as these incredible tales, there are stories of the friends he has lost to climbing accidents including a story about him losing a very good rescue dog in an avalanche.
All of these stories are intermingled with the stories from his experience in a mental hospital. Hamish describes how he feels that his sectioning was unjustified and how he didn’t recognise the person the medical records were describing. He also mentions his longing for freedom and even talks about how he had attempted to escape. The most remarkable story from this time of Hamish’s life is how he was able to regain almost all of his memory back by looking at his photographs and watching his old films.
The film is an incredible tale of recovery and makes the effects of old age very visible. It has given a platform for Hamish MacInnes to talk openly about a very traumatic period in his life rather than his history of climbing and of mountain rescue. Both the positive and negative qualities of his personality shine through the film giving you an intimate view of his life. The only criticism I have of the film is that the stories from Hamish’s past and from his time being sectioned do not flow well together.
The event concluded with a Q and A with the director Robbie Fraser. In this he detailed some of the stories he had left out, his experience when making the film and working with Hamish. He also explained that he didn’t want people to see this movie as a takedown of the NHS or that they did the wrong thing.
By Calum Tyler
Calum is a 23 year old living in Lewis. Having battled through depression and anxiety, Calum is very passionate about telling stories about mental health issues.
The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.
Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes is screening throughout Scotland, supported by SMHAF. Click here for full dates.
Mental health can be challenging to discuss. It is a well-known fact. These challenges only grow when the conversation is about a personal experience of an illness rarely discussed in the media, within support groups or among friends and families. Psychosis is one such illness. Trying to explain what psychosis can feel like could be seen as a nigh on impossible task, but, through the use of art and narrative, Emily Furneaux has managed to do just that. By immersing us into her story, and carefully controlling the narrative we are exposed to, she opens up a dialogue that even those clued up on mental health often haven’t been attuned to. Furneaux’s walking tour She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her, gives the audience access to a truthful and deeply personal account of a period of psychosis, while allowing for audience interpretation.
Speaking with the artist after the tour, she explained to me that in much of her work she finds herself weaving and layering stories through one another. This results in the production of a collaborative narrative that has the capacity to discuss personal experiences. Her exhibition ile de Sable for example, used the analogy of an island that after previously being discovered was described as "undiscovered" in 2014 to discuss the break up she was going through at that time. In She Stepped Backwards… Furneaux uses her own experiences as the central plot, employing poetic language to describe her lived experience with psychosis, creating an alternative world for the listener to inhabit.
We experience this as we walk around Glasgow, with Furneaux’s audio recordings weaving stories and imagery through each other. This creates artistic expressions of alternative realities, which can at first be disorientating and make us feel quite separate from them. However, after further exploration, the stories begin to make sense in a nonsensical way.
One example of this is when Furneaux discusses being in Glasgow, but it feeling like America. Glasgow had taken on the atmosphere, style and smell of Kansas City. The uniqueness of one place was being transplanted to another, causing the two to amalgamate in her mind. This layering of stories isn’t just a metaphor: it becomes Furneaux’s reality during her experiences with psychosis.
Listening to the piece gives a deeper understanding of how our mental state can affect our lived reality in more ways than just our mood or outward displays of emotion. This was really eye-opening, as it goes a long way towards explaining the power of mental health. The ‘feel of a city’ is something many of us discuss however no experience is ever exactly the same. Common understandings of places run through our experiences but their personal interpretation can live within our memory. Frequently expressed in art and film, here Furneaux begins to project these memories onto the reality around her, raising the question of what reality really is, if we all experience different versions.
Listening to the audio through personal headphones is isolating and creates a world inside the mind of the listener that we have no control over. Her voice and poetic descriptions can completely separate us from the world around us, mimicking the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come from mental illness. But it goes further, creating a new reality for the listener, one that recognises the disconnect between ourselves and the world around us, something that is especially poignant with the theme of the festival being Connected.
The story is told in the third person, giving the listener an opportunity to view it from an objective bird’s eye view. Making sure that we never think of ourselves as the subject of the narrative, this also allows Furneaux to keep a level of distance, reiterating that the narrative belongs to someone else who is inviting us to listen. This is disconcerting, but effective in allowing us to understand what a period of psychosis can feel and sound like.
The intricate map is not simple to follow like a Google map. Studying the monochrome illustration shows a clear route but combined with having an audio story to focus on and cars to dodge, it can be mystifying to follow. This places emphasis on the journey that our minds can take us on if we experience psychosis. Furneaux encourages us to explore, explaining that you shouldn’t be concerned if you come away from the path. Therefore, no two experiences of the tour are the same. Pausing at points, stopping for breaks, or meeting someone on the street are all part of the journey, bringing you back to reality with a bump when it happens. Your perspective of her work will be truly unique.
Creating a whole new view of the streets through the audio while you walk them really gives the illusion of walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s a completely immersive experience, bringing you into a different world, at times mimicking a different mental state. Furneaux gives a clear and personal account of a period of psychosis, creating a unique and intense experience. She Stepped Backwards… educates us on what it can feel like to be so isolated by our own mind that it affects our realities.
Psychosis doesn’t get a lot of airtime when it comes to discussions around mental health, partly due to the fact that there is too much stigma and not enough empathy surrounding it. This tour invites participants into an experience of the illness, in a bid to begin a societal shift towards holding discussions around it. The technique of constructing an experience in this way can give us the tools to build an empathetic understanding of an illness that is greatly stigmatised and discriminated against.
by Emily Walker
She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her is open until Sat 25 May. Collect a map and audio from 12pm-4pm Thu-Sun from Many Studios and take the tour in your own time. Emily Furneaux will also be giving live performative tours on Sun 26 May. Tickets are FREE and can be booked here.
The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.
In our latest Talking Heads feature, reporter Amy Ortiz reviews Electrolyte, a piece of gig theatre making its return to Scotland as part of a two-month tour supported by the Mental Health Foundation. Please be aware that this review contains spoilers.
A crowd brimming with expectation awaited the multi-award winning production, Electrolyte, on its opening night in Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. The wait was not long, however, as this dynamic piece of gig theatre swiftly pulls the audience out of the dark and drops them into the uplifting highs and gut-wrenching lows of it’s leading character, a young artist named Jessie.
Written by James Meteyard and complemented by music and lyrics from composer Maimuna Memon, Electrolyte creates a sensitively layered narrative that explores the effects of grief on Jessie’s deteriorating mental health, as well as highlighting community and friendship as key players in her recovery. No wonder then, the format is in that of a tightly knit, six-piece band of friends brought to life by the multi-instrumental actors onstage who inject personality, authenticity and an infectious energy into their performances.
As the protagonist, played by Olivia Sweeney, shifts from one environment to the other, from unbearable, strobing nightclubs to moments of blue-tinged introspection, from light-hearted sing-alongs to tense confrontations, it is her spoken word narration that guides the audience throughout it all and seamlessly incorporates storytelling into the rhythm of the music.
For a production that juggles this spoken word poetry, live music, drama and a sprinkle of audience participation, Electrolyte has nothing much to hide behind but microphones and electrical wiring. Yet, by stripping back to it’s bare essentials, the audience is given room to feel the full impact of Jessie’s fluctuating emotions, moods and an undeniable sense of vulnerability that describe a distressed mental landscape so well. In a distinctly memorable moment, Jessie pauses and studies stunned, squinting faces as the white stage lights swing from cast to crowd. Roles are reversed as suddenly the audience are in the spotlight, made to feel as exposed and vulnerable as the protagonist.
It is in this way that Electrolyte crafts a collective experience and instils an empathetic understanding so important in the conversation around mental wellbeing, as audiences will undoubtedly be touched whether they have shared a similar experience or not. Viewers are reminded that feelings are universal, everyone is part of the discussion, and that both individually and collectively the time to observe from a distance, is over.
What Electrolyte achieves is more than a refreshing and contemporary perspective into mental health, but a deeply humanising journey through what is eventually revealed to be Jessie’s schizophrenia, a condition so typically restricted to the fringes of society or exploited for dramatic effect in media. Jessie proves she is more than her psychosis, and is given a liberating before and after to her story that is unfortunately rarely told, but thankfully handled here with care and tact.
Amy Ortiz is a Belfast born design student living in Glasgow and self-described weirdo. She strives to involve herself in local creative goings-on, especially when they combine arts with meaningful social impact.
Talking Heads reporter Lisa Rashleigh's recent experience of trying to book a GP appointment prompts her to explore the issues faced by individuals suffering from mental ill health when attempting to seek support.
It’s 8:29am on Monday morning. I’m poised and ready to make a phone call to my local GP to book an appointment for a fairly innocuous health issue (a funny-looking freckle to be exact). Eight-thirty am rolls around, the surgery opens and I start to dial. I’m unable to get through the first time, so I try again. I can’t get through the second time, so I try again, and again, and again. In fact, it takes me over thirty attempts to finally have the receptionist answer my call. Unfortunately, after all of this effort, I am told that all of the appointment slots have been booked for the day. The receptionist then goes on to tell me that I also cannot book an appointment in advance to see my GP. I am told that I will need to ring again tomorrow.
Initially I ended the phone call feeling very annoyed at the inconvenience this presented for me as somebody who works a standard 9-5 job. I also couldn’t understand how a GP, located within one of the most populated areas of Glasgow, had such a flawed booking system. This then got me thinking; if I, a persistent and fairly ‘confident at making-phone calls’ kind of person, finds it nearly impossible to get a GP appointment, then how difficult must it be for somebody who may not have the means to be as confident and persistent as myself? Furthermore, how anxiety-provoking and challenging must it be for people with mental health issues, particularly those that may be in a place in which even making a phone call is hugely difficult. The more I thought on the issue, the more I could see the barriers that this system put in place for people that may be trying to access mental health services through the NHS, as a referral from your GP is required. Though this barrier may seem small and insignificant, it is a barrier none the less and it actually represents a far larger problem, being the systemic discrimination against mental health in Scotland.
Unfortunately, in both my personal and professional life, I have seen a disconnect between mental health services and the people who are trying to access them. Though a stigma against mental illness undeniably exists, more people than ever before are opening up about their issues and seeking support. However, it seems that many unnecessary, and potentially harmful barriers are still preventing people from accessing this support. For example, a friend of mine was told by an occupational therapist, via letter, to “just keep exercising and cooking” after they had their sessions cancelled with no further explanation, except that they did not meet the criteria for further support, or for referral to a mental health service. Another close friend was told by a NHS gatekeeper, after having already stated that their personal choice was to not take medication, that their only options were to be prescribed medication, or wait close to 3 months for an initial appointment. There was no mention of signposting, nor reassurance or basic empathy given to this individual that was in the midst of a very challenging time. It seems that some systems take advantage of the fact that many people do not understand their rights, including their right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, so these decisions and gatekeeping processes are remaining unchallenged and therefore unchanged.
A further area of disconnect, particularly within Glasgow, are the barriers against people with problematic alcohol and drug misuse issues that are trying to access mental health support. For example, NHS mental health services are of the view that if somebody is not detoxed sufficiently, then they are unable to access a mental health assessment. This of course makes sense in terms of determining an accurate diagnosis, however, it doesn’t take into consideration the overarching problem of what it was that came first; was it mental health issues or alcohol and drugs? Although, if an individual is lucky, there may be the option of detox and long-term rehab, but this may not be able to address underlying mental health issues. Furthermore, many people in this situation have difficulty even accessing interim support, for the fear from certain services, and I quote from professional experience, “of opening up a can of worms”. These individuals, whom are often desperately trying to find a helping hand, are then left to manage their mental health in whichever way they can in order to cope.
I’m not attempting to insinuate that there is going to be a quick and easy solution; funding and resources are not easy to come by. But with all of the hard work that organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation, See Me and many others are doing in regard to reducing the stigmatisation against mental health, there needs to be a more concentrated effort into the evaluation of referral pathways. There also needs to be a deconstruction of overly stringent gatekeeping methods, particularly in regard to those that also do not provide signposting. These barriers, whether they are as seemingly small as a flawed GP booking system or something bigger, are disadvantaging people through structural and systemic discrimination. This is undoubtedly contributing to further morbidity and premature mortality in Scotland and that is unjustifiable. It isn’t right that vulnerable individuals are being utterly left in the lurch due to the disconnect between themselves and the services that are supposed to be helping them.
by Lisa Rashleigh
Lisa is a 25-year-old Australian living in Glasgow. She has a background in youth work and homelessness, and is currently working as an independent advocate. Lisa is passionate about both mental health and the Glaswegian music and art scene. Follow her on Instagram @bin_leisel or on twitter @LisaRashleigh.
In a festival preview, Talking Heads reporter Louise Farquhar writes about Viola, a solo-aerial theatre performance that reimagines Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Viola will open at Aerial Edge in Glasgow on Friday 24th May.
Viola, a solo-aerial theatre performance reimagining Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, will premiere at SMHAF 2019 on the 24th May before embarking on a national tour. This innovative production is written and directed by Scottish soprano, Charlotte McKechnie, with choreography by aerialist, Adam Wright. Using aerial movement, improvised live music and projected text, the stripped-down story of this compelling heroine addresses issues of gender, identity and loss.
Just as Shakespeare broke the rules of traditional theatre, this new adaptation has a darker narrative, shunning the comedic tone of the original play. Finding herself shipwrecked, with the apparent death of her twin brother, this production is centered solely on Viola and how she adapts to the isolation and danger now upon her. Impersonating a man, for self-protection and to infiltrate society, she transcends from her own noble status to become a servant. Complicated relationships ensue until she is ultimately unmasked as herself, a woman.
In keeping with Shakespearean protocols, a male performer plays the female character of Viola. Adam is immensely talented in this role and brings great empathy to his performance. His ability to reflect the nuances of gender is deeply moving. As Charlotte explains, “I was fascinated by how we could use movement to really break apart our pre-conceptions of gender.” Trauma is also at the heart of this modern storyline. Viola has faced death, lost a loved one, been separated from her home and forced to relinquish her identity. By using only one character throughout the performance, everything is seen from only their perspective. There are no other characters or sub-plots to distract the audience. The attention is solely on Viola, “as the unfiltered, raw emotional processing of a person at their most vulnerable.”
Using such a unique art form, where the emotional ballast of live classical music balances the grace and artistry of aerial movement, a powerful connection is forged with the audience, asking important questions about how we react to mental health challenges. Charlotte is hopeful that Viola will prompt important conversations around these issues. In particular, the narrative climaxes in the scene, ‘Poor Monster’. This 8-minute intense aerial routine is a “mental fracturing” for Viola, reflective of a panic attack, “when someone is fuelled by a deep sense of anxiety and fear of not having a place in the world, of not being accepted.”
During an aerial performance such as Viola, with the performer’s body suspended in the air in a series of gravity-defying poses, the audience is given an alternative viewpoint. This different orientation of performance space, which upends conventional theatre, corresponds with the disruptive effects of mental health imbalance. Analogous to life, each performance of Viola is expected to be slightly different depending on Adams’ touch, together with the spontaneous music. Such an ever-changing landscape is truly representative of life, replicating the unpredictability of our experiences and responses. “An artist’s job is never about them. It’s to hold up a mirror to the audience to see themselves and their environment in a different light,” as Charlotte explains. This is particularly pertinent for Viola, where the artists lay emotionally bare before the audience, giving every last part of their soul to the performance. Compelling observers to share in this exposure, the piece aims to engender awareness not only in their own self, but also in the lives of others they meet.
The artistic realm is a vital medium to raise consciousness of societal issues and challenge pre-conceptions. Performances like Viola, crucially set in an aerial environment, literally cut the ground from under our feet, bringing the disorientation of life sharply into focus. We must thank these artists for their generosity, as they give so much of themselves to us, in order than we can all become better people.
Viola opens at Aerial Edge, Kelvin Hall on 24th May, before touring the UK. A fundraising dinner on 22nd May includes live performances and aims to raise money for important school workshops. Click here to find out more.
Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books.