You would be forgiven for assuming that Ruby Wax – Lost It is a night of stand-up comedy. After all, Ms Wax has made a career out of her comedic interpretation of her own Americanness, and is well known the world over for her loud, brash and somewhat mortifyingly honest flavour of humour. I for one was geared up for an evening of hysterical aisle-rolling.
And this was despite the fact that I knew that this one woman show tackles that most precarious of subjects: mental illness. But what I could not have hoped for, and did not expect, was an intensely raw and thought-provoking retelling of Wax’s own personal experience with the disease as she examines the human brain and questions the capacity of our evolved ego to cope with the pressures of the 21st century.
The cavalier audience interaction from Ruby Wax begins while spectators are still trickling into their seats. “You can talk amongst yourselves, the show hasn’t started yet”, comes the unexpected consent from Ruby as she stirs her tea and checks her phone from underneath the crimson lighting.
Ruby Wax is candid and earnest. And yes, extremely funny. Thickly veiled in personal anecdotes it’s sometimes hard to come to grips with the underlying message until the stomach spasm-inducing laughter has subsided. Leading with the line “Recently I became a poster girl for mental illness” she bounces about the stage, all enthusiasm and life and gut-punching honesty. Her stories of her bizarre childhood in the care of the swooping vulture that was her mother, tales of the cringing humiliations inflicted upon her as a result of ‘evils’ as trivial as leaving biscuit crumbs, had the house in stitches of empathetic, deep-bellied laughter.
In the manner of an ADHD sufferer, Wax catapults from subject to subject, barely finishing sentences and vacillating maniacally between being flippantly humorous and fiercely grave. The audience reels between laughter and humble silence as she acts out the tumult of her inner voices.
But that is the whole point of the show: to demonstrate what it is to experience the wild rollercoaster that is mental illness, from the inside, and from the outside. Lost It is an existential one woman monologue which is part pithy self-deprecation, part brutal introspection and part frank social commentary.
The best treatment for mental illness, she concludes, is the tribe. It’s human nature to want to belong to a group, whether it’s a knitting circle or a football team fan club, and her experience is that, when suffering, she needs to be with other sufferers. Especially the really manic, they made her feel a lot better. “Oh you hear your voices every day?” she laughs “Mine only come once a week now.”
To say that one gets “up close and personal” with the woman and the topic is an understatement, particularly in the second half where Ruby turns the mic on the audience and encourages them to enter into a discussion about mental illness with her. Too in awe to ask anything at the time, my mind has been full of questions and thoughts since… to the degree that I might just have to go back for more. As it was I left the theatre confounded and deeply moved, but still able to chuckle at Ruby Wax’s lecture on “Marriage Negotiations” and her description of her bi-polar audience: “they laughed, they cried,” she said, with that trademark grin. And you will too.
by Jodi Le Roux and Andrea Fedder
Ruby Wax – Lost it performance runs from 11 – 28 April 2012 at Theatre on the Bay