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‘Too surreal’ – Matt Haig on the stage play about his suicidal younger self

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The cast of Reasons To Stay Alive in rehearsalsImage copyright
Johan Persson

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The cast of Reasons To Stay Alive in rehearsals

Twenty years ago, Matt Haig walked to the edge of a cliff and wrestled with the question of whether to jump.

This week, he will watch an actor playing him walk to the edge of a (fake) cliff and wrestle with the question of whether to jump. Then he will watch another actor playing an older version of himself talk his younger self out of it.

The prospect of seeing his life story on stage, Haig says, is “exciting, but it’s also very weird”.

And it is his life story.

The play is an adaptation of his book Reasons To Stay Alive – part memoir, part self-help manual – in which he eloquently evoked the crushing depression and suffocating anxiety that overcame him in September 1999. It then recounts how, with the help of his parents and girlfriend Andrea, he slowly got back to something like stability.

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Matt Haig: “We absolutely never know what sort of person we will be in the future”

As Haig puts it, the new play dramatises “the most intense experience of my life and some of the worst days of my life”. The author has had little hands-on involvement in its creation at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre, however.

“I’ve given them a relatively free rein,” he says. “The only thing I said as a caveat at the meeting was, ‘You can do what you want with me and Andrea, but please go gentle on my parents’. I’m totally OK with all the warts and all stuff, but with my parents it’s a bit more awkward.

“I’ve made them promise not to go [and watch] on the same night as me because I think I’d spontaneously combust with awkwardness.”

On that cliff top in Ibiza in 1999, 24-year-old Matt didn’t have the benefit of his older self to tell him that everything would be OK. He was terrified of living, with no prospect – as he saw it – of the pain easing. But he was equally terrified of dying, and leaving his loved ones behind.

If the older Matt really had been able to enter at that point, he could have told his younger self that, after stepping back from the cliff edge, as well as writing about his depression, he would go on to write award-winning novels and children’s books (one of which would be turned into a film by Netflix, and another which would be optioned by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Oh, and he’d marry Andrea. And have a family. And a dog.

What would the young Matt have made of the fact this play is telling his story? “Honestly, any of it would be just almost too surreal to comprehend,” the 44-year-old replies.

“Becoming a published author at that point would have been beyond anything I could have imagined or thought I was capable of. And the fact that I’d be writing about that experience would have been beyond anything I would have understood.

“And also the fact that I was still here. I was in such a desperate state that I didn’t think I’d make it to 25 years old.

“I think there’s a lesson in that for everyone, really, in that we absolutely never know what sort of person we will be in the future. Every single person changes.”

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Johan Persson

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The play opens at Sheffield Crucible on Friday before a UK tour

Reasons To Stay Alive was meant to be a side-project in between Haig’s fiction works, but the chord it struck was so sizeable that the book ended up staying in the UK top 10 for 49 weeks and being published in 29 countries.

“When I was ill, my big thing was that I felt very alone and very misunderstood. And I didn’t even understand myself,” Haig says.

“Back then, there were a lot of very heavy, very academic, quite depressing books about mental illness. But there wasn’t anything that accessible. So I wanted to create something that people could relate to.”

Its candid and beautifully-written insights and tips achieved that. The most difficult part of writing something people could relate to, the author says, was fielding messages from others who were going through similar things, and suddenly discovered someone who understood.

“I was getting contacted a lot by people who were in a very vulnerable states, or ill, and even suicidal,” he says. “And a lot of the time I felt it was something I had to respond to. And I’m not a doctor. I’m not a Samaritan. I didn’t necessarily know what I should or should not be saying. So that was tricky at the start.”

He now has contact details for support organisations on his website, and occasionally tweets them. The play, like the book, will “open a little window” onto depression and anxiety, he hopes.

The script has been written by April De Angelis, and the idea for the play came from director Jonathan Watkins, whose background as a choreographer means he is using movement and music to help express the emotions that dialogue alone might struggle to convey.

“In the book, he says sometimes words weren’t enough,” Watkins says. “I use words when we want to use words, and I want to use movement when words aren’t enough.”

‘Such an important book’

Younger Matt is played by Mike Noble, while older Matt is played by Phil Cheadle, who read the book before taking his audition.

“I was deeply moved,” the actor says. “It struck me that it’s such an important book. And it is not only a book that can be of use to people who live with mental health difficulties, it’s also a book that I think that can resonate on a wider scale, and actually provide a lot of hope to anybody who might be experiencing difficulties. I also had a lot of friends really struggling, so it’s quite personal.”

Suicide is the single biggest killer of males under the age of 45, and despite a greater openness about subjects like depression, helped in part by people like Haig, last week it was revealed that the suicide rate in the UK had risen for the first time since 2013.

Ultimately, Cheadle says he hopes that through telling one person’s story, the play can reach many more.

“Matt’s book shows the warts and all of what it is like to be in the midst of depression or anxiety,” he says. “There’s a lot of lightness in it and humanity. But ultimately, there’s a lot of hope.

“There’s a lot of hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The book does that fantastically well, and I hope our production brings that out.”

If you would like support, you can phone The Samaritans on 116 123 or email

Reasons To Stay Alive runs at Sheffield Crucible from 13-28 September before a UK tour.

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Love Island: Tributes paid to Caroline Flack as winners are crowned

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Caroline Flack was found dead at her London flat last weekend

Love Island paid tribute to Caroline Flack as its first winter series drew to a close on Sunday night.

The former host of the show was found dead in her London flat last weekend.

“The past week has been extremely difficult, coming to terms with the loss of our friend and colleague, Caroline,” presenter Laura Whitmore told viewers of the ITV2 programme.

“Caroline loved Love Island. She loved love, and that’s why tonight’s final is dedicated to her.”

She added: “We’re thinking of her family and everyone who knew her at this time.”

The programme then showed a montage of some of Flack’s memorable moments from the series in recent years.

The islanders were told about Flack’s death off-camera on Saturday, an ITV spokesman confirmed.

Finley Tapp and Paige Turley were crowned the winners of the series as the finale drew to a close.

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ITV

Two episodes of this series were pulled from the schedules last weekend after Flack was found dead.

The show returned the following Monday with a tribute to Flack from the show’s narrator Iain Stirling.

This has been the first series of the show to take place in winter and be filmed in South Africa.

Previous seasons have been filmed on the Spanish island of Mallorca over the summer.

Overall, the winter series has been a ratings hit for ITV2, albeit not as successful as previous summer series.

This series has been attracting around three million viewers per episode, including via catch-up services, compared with the 4.5 million the last summer series generally attracted.

Laura Whitmore is the show’s current presenter. She joined the show after Flack was charged with assaulting her boyfriend.

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EPA

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Laura Whitmore pictured at the Brit Awards last week

Tapp and Turley were crowned the winners of this series on Sunday night, winning the £50,000 prize, which they chose to share between them.

In a twist that occurs in every series, Turley was given the chance to “steal” the full prize money before she decided to split it evenly.

“It’s been such an amazing experience,” Turley said earlier in the episode. “It’s been filled with challenges, but it’s been amazing.”

Asked what first attracted him to Turley, Tapp said: “I loved how outgoing she was. I wasn’t wrong in picking her because I thought she’d make me laugh and smile all day long. She’s made me very happy.”

Earlier this series, they became the first pair to become an official couple in the villa.

Turley attracted headlines when the series launched in January because she is the ex-girlfriend of singer Lewis Capaldi.

The Scottish star referred to her while accepting the Brit Award for best single earlier this month, for his song Someone You Loved.

“A lot of people think this song is about my ex-girlfriend, who you can now see every night on Love Island,” he said.

“But it’s actually about my grandmother, who sadly passed away a few years ago. I hope ITV don’t contact her to be a on a reality dating show.”

During the finale, Whitmore confirmed the show would return to Mallorca for a new series this summer.


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Earth Harp: The man behind the unique instruments ‘epic’ sound

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William Close is the inventor behind the Earth Harp – the world’s longest string instrument which uses architecture and landscapes to create a unique sound.

Mr Close, who has performed the giant harp all over the world, says the audiences are often left feeling like they are “inside the instrument” during his performances.



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Verdi opera: Conductor stops performance over ‘phone miscreants’

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Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi learnt to speak Welsh while serving as the music director of Welsh National Opera between 1992 and 2001

A conductor has twice stopped an opera in Cardiff after mobile phones rang in the audience.

Carlo Rizzi was conducting Welsh National Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Les Vêpres Sicilienes, at Donald Gordon Theatre at the Wales Millennium Centre on Saturday night.

Audience members said Rizzi twice stopped and spoke to the audience about the distraction it caused.

Verdi’s opera is based around true events in Sicily in 1282.

‘Phone miscreants’

David Jackson, a BBC employee who was in the audience, said Rizzi was applauded after bemoaning the interruption caused by mobile phones.

He said: “I spoke to Carlo afterwards and congratulated him on the performance, but also on tackling the phone miscreants.

“He got a warm round of applause after he stopped and ticked off the audience member. Both incidents were right at the beginning of the show and all was well after that.”

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Robin Drayton/Geograph

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Based at the Wales Millennium Centre, the Donald Gordon Theatre is named after its patron, a South African businessman

The opera is sung by WNO in French in its new production directed by Sir David Pountney.

Another audience member confirmed the two instances of disruption caused by mobile phones.

It is not the first time a mobile phone has drawn irritation during a high-profile live performance, with the devices falling foul of numerous artists in the past.

Pianist Krystian Zimerman stormed out of a concert in 2013 because a fan was filming with his phone.

And film and stage actors Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman and Benedict Cumberbatch have all voiced their anger at the use of mobiles while treading the boards in London.

Last year, singer Madonna said she would ban mobile phones from future gigs.

Jackson said his enjoyment of the opera in Cardiff was not affected by the interruptions.

“It was a wonderful performance of a comparatively rarely done piece of Verdi – the mobile phone business didn’t detract,” he said.

WNO confirmed there were “short pauses” and that Rizzi addressed the audience following the second interruption.



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