‘Soap and Water’ by Hannah Brennan is a triumph that breaks down the boundaries between the body, the mind and the observer in a deep and detailed exploration of what it is like to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder.
The two characters both suffer from a form of OCD. The male character (Will Hannam) has an obsession with hygiene, the female (Anna Feroldi) with food, which verges on bulimia. The action takes place in the flat that they share and maps the progression of their illnesses as they venture further into their understanding of themselves and their conditions.
The set is presented first, as the action begins with both characters repeating phrases from offstage. In the centre, there is a sofa with a mattress in front. The space is littered with carrier bags, loose papers and empty alcohol bottles. Although this may look like the typical student dwelling, it is clear from the beginning that the audience is peering into the minds of the characters – something that must be attempted in order to fully appreciate their reality.
The use of pre-recorded music within the piece helps to further create a web of the characters’ consciousness. Added to this is a tapestry of audio clips commenting on the lives of literary figures who have committed suicide: Sylvia Plath, Sarah Kane and Virginia Woolf remind the audience that although the piece may present itself as a contrived situation, there is truth and reality behind the layer of the literary.
This emphasis on the literary is continued through the female figure’s reading of Plath’s work as she stands under a spotlight on the sofa. She hurls the book down, rejecting Plath’s perspective and implying that mental illness is as personal and unique as the person whom it affects. ‘The minute I get help I become a statistic’, states the male character, showing how he would rather exist as a unique individual, albeit mentally ill, than be rationalized and transformed into the mundane.
The literary focus is humorously contrasted by the male character’s reading of a section of a magazine in which Kim Kardashian jokes that she must be OCD. This reference to contemporary culture draws the characters further out of the realm of the literary and into the audience’s reality.
This idea is explored further still with several metadramatic techniques as the characters infiltrate the audience’s viewing space to reiterate the actuality of their circumstances. In one instance, the female character appears at the back of the auditorium and walks down to meet the male character who sits hanging his legs from the front of the stage.
In another scene, the male character plays with a lighter, holding it dangerously close to his skin. He looks at the audience as he casually says, ‘It’s difficult to stage, but you can guess what happens next.’
Despite its solemnity of topic, the piece provoked laughter on several occasions, usually during the fleetingness of the two characters reaching a moment of understanding and equality, temporarily forgetting their situation. The laughter stemmed from the sudden release of awkward tension that naturally builds as they delve into their souls, and is reminiscent of the type of dark humour used by Alan Bennett in his psychological pieces such as ‘Talking Heads’ and ‘Enjoy’.
The influence of ‘4.48 Psychosis’ by Sarah Kane can also be seen clearly within the piece. Again and again the characters repeat individual words or phrases as they voice the words hanging in their subconscious.
Also similar is the way in which the characters objectify their illness, almost as if attempting to diagnose and treat themselves. At times the boundaries of this mind-set falter, allowing the audience to see the difficulty that the characters face in understanding their condition without being able to change.
The characterization of the piece was superb. It seemed that the actors were hesitant at first, as the early uses of explicit language seemed tentative and perhaps unnatural. However this quickly changed. Their emotions were carefully crafted and constructed slowly to give a realistic depiction of the characters’ mind-set. There was no movement void of reason or intent.
Furthermore, the actors were not afraid to let silence surround them whilst they made the progression between different thoughts and emotions.
‘Soap and Water’ is without doubt one of the most daring and thought-provoking pieces of student writing to have appeared at the Assembly Rooms this year, and the superb acting and direction ensured that it was explored to its full potential.