Yesterday, I braved the “Beast from the East” to watch Milly Thomas’ Dust – a play about mental illness and suicide. When informing people about the content of this play, I was met with questioning frowns: “Why would you want to spend your evening watching that?”
Why would anyone want to see an hour long monologue about a young woman who kills herself?
Dust answers that question.
We are immediately placed into a very small and intimate space on the top floor of the Soho theatre, with only four mirrors and a steel autopsy table. Thomas, the writer and performer of this piece draws us into Alice’s life – or death, as it turns out. Alice has killed herself and is overseeing the events that follow. For the next hour and ten minutes, the audience are nestled inside the warped mind of Alice as she unlocks the thoughts and desires she left unsaid during her life.
Thomas effortlessly introduces Alice’s family and friends as her dead self visits them. We see the vulnerability around family life, and the cracks that appear after something this traumatic occurs. Thomas showcases her incredible talent to shift her body language and voice to depict a conflict between her mother and rich aunt. Contrastingly, we see the deep sorrow and inability to express grief within her father and brother – her brother turning to drugs for comfort instead. What this play so craftily portrays through the fallibility of its characters, is that many of us are ill-equipped to manage mental illness or its aftermath.
We see the depiction of female sexuality, as Alice appears to resent the sex she has with her boyfriend – she describes it as uncomfortable and thinks about ways to kill herself while she endures his pounding, squirming when he touches the scars on her arms. Yet, we see a different side to her as she watches in awe at her best friend having sex when she revisits the flat she used to live in.
The tone shifts are dealt with seamlessly – one minute we’re laughing at the horsey replacement housemate, the next we feel the deceit Alice feels at not being told that her best friend is pregnant. Throughout, Alice is reminded that she can no longer have an influence over her life and others – she cannot fix this. This message prevails throughout the piece as Alice wishes to fix the situations that go on around her, but is left feeling helpless.
The ending is perhaps the most shocking as we are forced to watch her death – lights flash and her body convulses on the table as paramedics attempt to revive her. The play closes with the same statement it opens with: “I think this is the end”.
Dust leaves you squirming, unable to watch, unable to listen – but its function acts as the first step towards opening up the conversation around mental illness and suicide. It smashes through the taboo by talking openly, honestly and with a sharp wit. Thomas is a genius and should be commended for her bravery in presenting this raw depiction of such a challenging subject.
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