Esteemed actor Mark Lockyer returns to the Young Vic this December in Living With The Lights On, a one-man show directed by Ramin Gray.
Giving a funny and touching account of his personal experience of bipolar disorder, Mark begins his story as he’s playing Mercutio in the RSC’s Romeo And Juliet in 1995, recalling the subsequent ways in which his deteriorating mental health changed his career, relationships and life.
As part of the run of the show, a safe space performance of Living With The Lights On will take place at 2.45pm on 17 December. While all Young Vic performances are open to everyone, this performance is designed especially for people with experience of mental health problems. Audience members will be able to come and go as they wish and complimentary tickets are available for accompanying carers.
We spoke to Mark about the motivation behind his hilarious, touching, and utterly bonkers production, and what he hopes audiences will take from the experience.
How would you describe Living With The Lights On?
Living With The Lights On is a story about hope, really. It’s about my experiences of suffering a cataclysmic bipolar breakdown, and although my experience was certainly not special or different to anyone else who has suffered mental health issues, the difference with me is it was very public. The consequences for me were very severe.
I was just bumbling along being quite a successful young actor, and then all of a sudden, I didn’t understand why my life was starting to fall apart and why my behaviour was changing, and then at the end of it after some years and diagnosis eventually, I was able to reflect and just think “My God! I was at the RSC, and then two and a half years later, I found myself sitting in Belmarsh Prison!” (I can’t tell you why because it’s in the show!). Now, I have a life which is just normal.
So how did you take such a personal experience, and create a show from it?
I was lucky to work with Ken Campbell, a wonderful storyteller, teacher, director, producer, writer, and in the early days of forming the basis of the show in 1999, he showed me how to format an event to make it interesting, not by embellishing it, but by constructing it into something dramatic.
The events which occur in my tale all happened, but sometimes it’s the way that you look at them. For example, there may be an instance where I talk about meeting the Devil – and I meet him, he’s got a name, he’s called “Beez” – and he turns up every now and then, in and out of my life, in the story. But you have to make that interesting, so you just give a flavour of a conversation, and leave it at that.
Great storytelling is about defying expectation, and keeping somebody’s interest, and it’s about how you negotiate a narrative to make a great story. At first I just wrote down a series of events I thought might be of interest, then I joined them together through improvised lines to make the spine of a story which I honed and honed, transcribed, and then left it – I liked being in plays with other people!
What made you want to return to the stage?
My show says something authentic. I don’t want to change the world – I was just a normal bloke, who had this extraordinary experience, and thought “I should tell people about this, cause people might find it interesting!”
But at the end of the day, if you put your head down, and you keep going, and have a bit of faith, you can do anything. I was on my knees, and nobody gave me a hope; not only did I have a severe mental health problem, I was homeless, and I was a chronic alcoholic – I was out for the count. How do I come back from that? And people go through much worse.
But I did. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but all I did know was if I put one foot in front of the other and got some help from some good people, I had a chance.
How does performing in a one-man show differ to the full cast roles you’ve tackled previously?
It’s hard doing it on your own, it really is! There’s a little bit of me which knows I’ve got to go through it each day, and just keep honing it, because I’ve got nobody else to support me. If you’re on your own, you’ve got to be sharp; to deliver 70 minutes of monologue, you’ve got to be on the ball, accurate, skilful and alert.
It’s about preparation; I just give myself time, do a proper warm-up, take notes from the night before, and go over bits which have been a bit tricky. I suppose it makes you a perfectionist in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be if you’re in a play with other people.
You’re also putting on a safe space performance of Living With The Lights On…
Yeah, I feel very strongly about that! We did a tour in the Spring, and I think we did about 25 other shows, half of which were in clinical spaces. I took it to a medium secure unit, I did it in St Pancras Hospital, and I did it for various doctors and psychiatrists around the countries in different hospitals.
I feel that that was very important for the anchoring and authenticity of the show; it isn’t just about display, it’s actually saying something which is pretty fundamental. We’re all human, and it’s not ‘them and us’; we’re all in it together, and to have an eclectic mix of audiences, and to do a safe space performance, it’s where it’s come from.
What would you say is the main thing you’d like audiences to take from the show?
That stuff which happens to you is visceral and painful and difficult, but it’s all relative, and we come through it. I spoke to a very close associate who’s a consultant, and I asked her what message she’d want me to give in a show about mental health, and she said “That people get better.” The stigma is that once you’ve got some kind of a mental health issue, you’re doomed, but you’re not; thousands upon thousands of people live happy, normal lives with their illnesses.
I think we all need a bit of hope now: maybe things now aren’t that bad, maybe we can get through this – and we can! It’s awful that in 2016 in England, there’s still stigma about mental health issues. Yes, it’s better than it was, but the root of stigma is about ignorance, and if I stand on stage, and say “get a load of this”, that smashes the ignorance of a very insular world, maybe even for only five seconds.
There’s nothing special about me at all, but the only thing that’s different is that I have the tools to tell a story.
Living With The Lights On runs from the 7 to 23 December at the Young Vic. For more information and to book your tickets, visit the venue’s website.