Mental illness can strike anyone at any time but for those who are regularly put in traumatic or dangerous situations, like soldiers, the chances of mental ill-health are much higher. Rob is one of those soldiers. Deployed to Afghanistan as a medic, Rob saves lives everyday but the high-stress and unpredictability of war take its tole and he’s sent home early with a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
This new play from writers James Balian and Roger Vickery explores the inner workings of PTSD in a man whose self-worth and identity are so tied to being an army medic. Hyper-masculinity and its influence on male-dominated environments can create real obstacles for men seeking mental health support and treatment. Mum, Me, & the IED attempts to navigate the difficulties of attitudes that see mental illness as a weakness or personal failure.
In particular, two scenes see Rob (Philippe Klaus) and his brother Dennis (Martin Harper) break down stigma and seek to find the heart of their anger and unhappiness in touching moments of vulnerability. Dennis has lost his family because of a deep-seated anger and resentment he’s carried around since childhood. Before the divorce, his couples counsellor encourages him to find other, healthier way to express his anger and he wants to share that knowledge with his brother in order to give him a chance at a happier life. Harper balances his character’s fear and unhappiness with his love and gentleness beautifully and the impact of this care on Klaus’s character is wonderful to watch.
In the majority of the rest of the production, Kevin Jackson’s direction seems at odds with the text’s attempts to combat toxic masculinity and the stigmatising of male mental illness. Rob is characterised as aggressive and obnoxious and every time he encounters fear or vulnerability, he reacts angrily and violently, quick to yell or intimidate. The dynamic between the cold, reserved female psychologist being melted to tears by the unrelenting and inappropriate attention of her arrogant male patient is an overused choice and doesn’t endear the audience to either character. The juxtaposition of representations of manhood in Rob’s brother and his military senior Captain Crowe (also played by Harper) demonstrates conflicting role models but there is no navigation of this in Rob himself, only the two choices posed against each other. There is room for complexity and exploration that just isn’t realised.
Similarly, Mum, Me, & the IED focuses on recreating the experience of PTSD for the audience, bringing you into the mind of someone suffering. The use of strobes and both disturbingly loud noises and almost unnoticeable white noise visually and aurally represent flashbacks and triggers. But, this inclination to remain inside the patient’s mind means that external actualities and actions are only ever outlined, not lived. So much of what happens to Rob and the people around him are only hinted at in conversation and it denies a lot of nuance to questions of responsibility, the mother and son relationship, or ill-attempts to seek revenge for your illness. Melodie (Matilda Brodie), Rob’s psychologist, accuses his mother (Elaine Hudson) of manipulating her son to fulfil her own agenda against the military but that accusation is the entirety of the engagement of this production with that idea. There are worlds on the outskirts of this script and the choice to not properly interrogate those other avenues hollows out what does happen.
Mum, Me, & the IED works as the beginning of a conversation about masculinity, the military, and mental illness that our community should be having much more often. It contains questions and gaps for the audience to find and navigate from their own perspective.
Mum, Me, & the IED is running at the Depot Theatre from August 19th – September 1st.