Who’s your Valerie?
It’s Mental Health Week, 8-14 October, the theme this year: ‘Let nature in to strengthen your wellbeing – mā te taiao kia whakapakari tōu oranga’. Here at the Arts Festival, we are busy creating our Festival Garden on the Village Green in preparation for Monday's opening, and today we feature Valerie, which will be playing the Spiegeltent next Thursday.
This brave, vital production by Auckland’s Last Tapes theatre company, recently made waves at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it won a Fringe First. As Pitsch Leiser, who saw it in Edinburgh last month, will attest, it’s an absolute tour de force, exploring the impact of mental illness across generations through a unique weave of music, genetics and storytelling. If you loved Daffodils, he says, you’ll want to see this.
A rock ‘n’ roll ride through fate, family history, mental illness and free will (The Scotsman)
Mental Health issues, and high suicide rates, are a big social reality in New Zealand, where more than 16% of New Zealanders are diagnosed with a mental health issue in their lifetime. Valerie addresses these by sharing some of the lived experience of mental illness by those experiencing it for themselves and those supporting their loved ones.
While in Edinburgh, creator Robin Kelly spoke with Mentalhealth Movement magazine about his reasons for creating the show:
“I’m close to my grandmother, Valerie Bethell. She lived with us through my teens and gave the blessing at my civil union. The ceremony brought memories of her wedding vows and her sadness about leaving my grandfather when his illness proved insurmountable.
"The stories of him and Valerie in their early days seemed glamorous. They had a restaurant and hung out with Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. However, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia resulted in him being in a home for most of my life.
"Valerie gave me a 12 page letter she’d written to her lawyer to show that divorce was warranted. I learnt a lot from that letter. It wasn’t just looking at it because it was interesting. I wanted to figure out what I’d inherited.
"There’s a strong current of depression (and more) in our family. It’s particularly uncomfortable since my own depression and anxiety are worsening. As we’ve developed the show it’s become about that too. We bring Valerie’s story to life and also explore genetics and biology and mental health. We put Valerie at the centre of it all because she is resilient as hell. She survived and somehow protected my mother. And in fact my mother turned into a pretty awesome person.
"The show goes to some dark places. There are songs that explore connections across generations. There are brutal truths. But ultimately it is about love. It’s a way of saying thank you to Valerie. She held on for so long, to keep others safe underneath her. There are many women like her – they should be celebrated.”
A beacon and lesson for our future. A challenging, innovative and beautiful piece of work. (Theatre Scenes)
As producer, Nicky Vella, explains, “In New Zealand we have a tradition of storytelling, and passing down stories of those who come before us, generation to generation, and Valerie captures that spirit while bringing the focus ultimately back to what that means here and now. There is also the joy and celebration of Valerie herself as a proud, living, and strong matriarch of the family. Her resilience and love is honoured as part of the wider conversation celebrating the wimen around us.
Through this intensely personal show, audiences get the chance to reflect on their own family histories and stories. What is true and what has become a mythology passed down to them. And for many it provides greater insight into the experience of mental illness - not just for the individual but for the strong and loving friends and family who hold on around them.
As one theatre goer in Auckland wrote in response to seeing Valerie in July: “I was spellbound by this incredible true, raw, beautiful articulation of the complex genetic breakdown of mental illness within families and generations. So close to my heart and personal experiences. To see it full frontal, portrayed with such respect, understanding, depth and purity, was a gift, a game changer, and something I will not only never forget but will make changes as a result of.”
As close to a perfect piece of theatre as I could think of... so violently to my taste that I wanted to keep it close to me forever. (Pantograph Punch)
And if you want to delve more into the incredible mind behind this creation, here’s a fabulous Loose Cannons piece on Pantograph Punch where Robin Kelly (who is a molecular biologist, in fact) talks about his influences:
"When I think about the things that have influenced my work, there’s a mix of scientific rationalism, geek humour, feminist anger, and European cultural elitism. All of that – for better or worse – comes from my family. We’re new-wave Australian colonials. Our oral history goes back to just beyond my grandparent’s generation – a generation of war heroes and immigrants. Because our genealogy and stories only go back so far, it’s hard to feel rooted to any cultural history, so that keeps you searching for something. I’ve started to cling to my grandmother’s life story – it’s the closest thing we have to a family mythology. I think that’s what I’m trying to explore in Valerie – how a fresh family history impacts me and my sisters. Where we stand. What chance we have."
The scale of the breath-taking songs – and Moore’s stunning voice – is matched by the epic quality of the story: one which might be based on a personal tale, but that also explores the oldest of dramatic conflicts: are we free to be who we want, or are our destinies set in stone – or, in this instance, the genome? (The Scotsman)