Review: Still Ill (New Diorama)

Kandinsky return following the success of ”Dog Show” in 2015

Sophie Steer in Still Ill
Sophie Steer in Still Ill
© David Monteith-Hodge

"Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?" whines Morrissey in The Smiths’ song "Still Ill". Kandinsky’s devised piece borrows the same title to ask the same question. Its focus is psychosomatic disorders – physical conditions with psychological causes.

Sophie Steer plays an actress who’s just got her big break in a major medical drama, cast as a trainee surgeon with a brain tumour. On her first day on set, her right hand seizes up: a fist she can’t unclench. Though dystonia can signify brain tumours or Parkinson’s Disease, doctors can’t find anything physically wrong with her. The more inexplicable Sophie’s condition seems, the worse it gets. The worse it gets, the more inexplicable it seems.

It’s disconcerting, her deterioration – beyond anyone’s control. It comes from nowhere and has no concrete cure. If its stress-related, it only exacerbates stress, digging itself in. Watching this 'healthy' young woman prise herself stiffly out of her chair is horrifying. That she’s afraid to even try is all the worse. It’s as if she’s paralysed by the possibility of paralysis. The idea of illness is the illness itself. Steer clenches up with catatonia.

Still Ill churns with questions about 'reality.' Is Sophie’s condition an illness, an illusion or an invention? Pain is a learned behaviour, understood through others’ experiences – whether real or represented. Is this, then, a case of life imitating art? And what if art gets illness wrong? Director James Yeatman lets the action glitch and repeat, take after take after take. Sophie’s soap pushes genuine emotions towards supersized sentimentality. Offscreen, her brother (Hamish McDougall) demands a second opinion – a phrase picked up from television. Still Ill sets up a feedback loop: Oliver Sachs meets Adam Curtis.

The Smiths’ song is actually a 'state of England' anthem – one big Mancunian moan about a nation reinventing itself under Thatcherism. Hymning old flames, old dreams and old days, the song seems to recognise that everything is new, but nothing’s really changed. "Am I," the whine whines on, "still ill?"

Even if it’s clinical, more illustrative than emotional, Kandinsky’s piece does the same. Sophie’s illness stands for a societal issue; the way our virtual lives affect the real world. She self-diagnoses through search engines and trusts feelings over facts. When she dismisses doctors’ advice, you see a country that’s had enough of experts. The information age breeds the post-fact world.

What’s particularly clever is the suggestion that this hyper-real world has its own effect on our mental health: anxiety born of unreality. So, once again: "Does the mind rule the body or does the body rule the mind?"

Still Ill runs at New Diorama until 19 November.