Interview by Amy Strong
Tamsin Daisy Rees, a playwright from the North East, was commissioned this year by Durham Book Festival to create a piece of drama about the concept of ‘Living in the Age of Anxiety’. The resulting monologue, Teddy, was directed by Anna Ryder and delivered by Jackie Edwards, who played the 15-year-old eponymous character. It was a poignant tale of grief in the face of a traumatic experience, and of how it is often a struggle to be vulnerable and honest with our feelings, even to those with whom we are closest.
In an interview after the first performance of her piece, Rees said that literature has a ‘responsibility to tell it truthfully’ when it comes to mental health. On the allure of romanticising mental illness by making it seem glamorous or sentimental, Rees was clear that writers must ‘resist that temptation’. And there certainly was not any trace of romanticism in Rees’ script. The performance was as real and raw as it could be: from the abundance of expletives punctuating the anger and the aggressive – at times almost inappropriate – humour used by Teddy as coping techniques, to her constant fidgeting – visually representing the natural discomfort so many of us experience as we wrestle with how to handle difficult emotions.
Teddy’s dialogue and body language also highlighted a key element of Teddy’s character: her immaturity. Already at a point in life where there is so much to deal with – so many changes and complex feelings – Teddy must also contend with a situation that no one is ever really equipped to handle, let alone someone still struggling with the hormone-fuelled chaos of adolescence. Rees revealed that she really enjoys writing teenagers, suggesting that they’re often written somewhat crudely and not three-dimensionally. She deftly avoided this pitfall, however, with her character Teddy exhibiting both the resilience of an independent and tenacious northerner, but also the more vulnerable and emotional side of a young girl who just needs some help.
Having grown up in rural county Durham, Rees expressed a certain frustration at the lack of representation of the North in literature: ‘No one writes about it!’ But to Rees there are multiple issues which take on different, specific connotations when examined through the perspective of the North–East: ‘Through writing about the North East we’re able to explore class and precariousness and jobs and work and isolation’. Out of these key issues, the main theme that came through was isolation; strikingly, in this piece, the strong Geordie accent and colloquial language alluded to a geographical isolation which in turn reinforced the inherent solitariness of the monologue format and the motif of grief that was prevalent throughout the whole performance.
Following the performance, there was a panel discussion with Rees and three experts from different areas within the field of mental health. For Rees, many of the difficulties with our approach to mental health came down to accessibility and government responsibility, with ‘more money in the arts and mental health’ being needed. On being asked whether she found writing the play itself therapeutic, Rees agreed: ‘As all art forms are; they aren’t cold.’
While this piece doesn’t pretend to have the answer to how we should tackle mental health, it undeniably – inevitably – opens up a dialogue about this important issue which just might help us to take better steps to address it.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.