It’s only been in the last few years that the political and social zeitgeists have actively considered mental health, addiction, family violence and child abuse, toxic masculinity, or any of the complex ways that these experiences overlap and compound in people’s lives. In this new Australian work that debuted shortly before the pandemic, the struggles of one man open up a discussion about the hidden suffering in our communities.
David is the central figure of the one-man show Breaking the Castle written and performed by Peter Cook. From the relative safety of a rehab facility in Thailand, David recounts the series of events that led up to his admittance as well as the deeply buried childhood traumas that contributed to his habits of overusing drink, drugs, and sex to shield himself; coping mechanisms that developed into addictions that later derailed his life and dreams of being a serious actor. Despite the stigmas associated with surviving childhood sexual abuse, mental illness, and addiction, David’s story is a common one. In this telling of the downfall and recovery of one man, Breaking the Castle opens up space to examine those stigmas but also the paralysing and detrimental effects of a toxic masculinity that prevents men especially from seeking and receiving help before they reach crisis point.
Director Caroline Stacey OAM acknowledges the grittier elements of David’s life trawling Kings Cross for all kinds of hook-ups but it was with an eye to the harsh reality rather than voyeurism. The set, designed by Imogen Keen, placed an ugly, angular slab of concrete centre-stage, strewn with half-drunk liquor bottles, dirty take-out containers, and piles of clothing. Amongst this slovenly mess strode David, comfortable, if unhappy. The concrete slab came to represent the elephant in the room and, then, the mountain David would have to climb to admit to his addiction and begin the road to recovery. But it remained solid, unmoving, and ever-present even as David’s memories, sense of self, and relationship to the world rocked and changed drastically throughout the production. The lighting design by Gerry Corcoran contributed to the feeling of dynamic change and transformation with many different lighting states transitioning between warm spots highlighting the mess, streaks of light creating the image of prison bars, and more abstract, astral projections of shards and stars in key emotional moments. Through these design elements, Stacey was able to expand David’s story beyond a solo performance to generate a sense of larger meaning, connection, and purpose.
Cook was confident in his performance with a comfortable handling of his script in the direct-to-audience address and its bloke-y tone. Cook didn’t shy away from accents and physical characterisations to weave the tapestry of people around David between Thailand and Australia, which often added humour and lightness to the scenes. As a story of struggle, pain, and overcoming even self-imposed limitations, there was great sincerity in the script and Cook’s performance which shined through most in moments with his therapist at the rehab facility or in a clever externalised horse race showing off David’s insecurities. These moments of originality cut through other clumsy metaphors or inelegant renderings of existentialism and examination of the human condition. But it seemed clear that Breaking the Castle was not striving for high-brow philosophy so much as cracking the door to the unspoken, unaddressed problems many men internalise.
What David’s experience illustrates is that the only solution to the social issues of violence, addiction, and isolation is to engage with the source of the pain and trauma and open up the possibility of communication and healing.
Breaking the Castle ran at Riverside Theatres from April 7th – 9th
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