Men in pieces: Raw displays of vulnerability

After a year in which three well-known Northern actors took their lives, a three-week programme of events, Edgefest, focuses on male mental health

A young woman called Caroline is visiting the house, which her boyfriend John shares with his mother. She has brought with her a bag. In the bag is John. He is in pieces. John has fallen apart and Caroline has brought him home to his mum to get him fixed. Henry the handyman will be called upon to help but this is a job way beyond his skills and experience.

The Man Who Fell to Pieces by Patrick J O'Reilly is the first in a trio of new productions to be premiered at the MAC in Belfast by two of the city's leading independents, Tinderbox and Prime Cut. They form the cornerstone of the three-week-long Edgefest programme, which focuses on the complex and pressing issue of male mental health.

Edgefest encompasses not only theatre but a weekend of connected events, including yoga, mindfulness, craniosacral and meditation sessions, a pop-up pharmacy and a panel discussion on the interface between mental health and emotional wellbeing and the arts.

During the past year, three well-known Northern actors took their own lives. The resulting shared sense of bereavement within the arts community has prompted closer examination of an issue long shrouded in darkness, offering opportunities to end isolation and facilitate informed debate about a condition which recognises no social boundaries and touches so many individuals and their families.


O’Reilly’s piece was initially written as a story during a critical time in his life. In 2015, he adapted it for the stage through Prime Cut’s Reveal programme, which develops new work by emerging artists under the mentorship of the company’s creative team.

Deconstruction and reconstruction

The audience will witness the physical and mental deconstruction and reconstruction of a human being. It is a story told in fragments, a story of a man whose mind has fragmented and whose body has followed suit.

“My depression in 2011 culminated in days where I would walk around Belfast for hours on end,” says O’Reilly. “I was terrified that if I stopped, the recurring thoughts of suicide would appear and I would eventually take my life.

“This went on for months. The thing was that I seemed really happy in my personal life but something in me said that it was all worthless. I had lost hope. Eventually I took myself off to the City Hospital and asked for professional help.

“Medication proved not to be the answer. I came to a realisation that everyone experiences a crisis point in their lives and that I could deal with mine if I could use my imagination. Certain things were not right in my upbringing. As a child I had quite a few imaginary friends and it seemed I used my imagination to open up new worlds, which were infinitely preferable to the one I was living in. In discussions about mental health, the context is often ignored – the person, his or her make-up and circumstances, what’s going on beneath the surface. I was very lucky. My imagination became my medication.”

O'Reilly is a highly respected actor and theatre maker. He trained in physical theatre at the prestigious Ecole Jacques Le Coq in Paris and regularly incorporates its distinctive performance style into his stage work.

He is also the artistic director of Tinderbox, one of the North's longest established independents, this year celebrating its 30th birthday. He took over from his long serving predecessor Michael Duke in May 2016 and is leading the company into what he calls ". . . a new adventure based on empowering the individual through play. It is all about achieving one's full potential through creativity."

His artistic approach is shaped by Le Coq practise and the philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism. It teaches that each individual, regardless of race, gender, capacity or social standing, has the power to overcome life's inevitable challenges, to develop a life of great value and creativity, and to positively influence community, society and the world.

From time to time we all feel things we don't want to feel, but we are all innately strong and resilient. We should be proud of our cracks and our wounds

Eastern culture plays an important part in his overall vision for the play. In collaboration with designer Ciaran Bagnall, the visual concept is evolving out of the Japanese art of kintsugi, which involves the repairing of broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

“The play is about human strength not weakness,” he says. “From time to time we all feel things we don’t want to feel, but we are all innately strong and resilient. We should be proud of our cracks and our wounds. We should not hide them. Our strength lies in our action, in the struggle to turn the poison into medicine. That is the power of the arts.”

Prime Cut is bringing two sharply contrasting one-man shows to Edgefest. Emma Jordan, the company's artistic director, first saw John Patrick Higgins's Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful at the Edinburgh Festival and was struck by the power and beauty of the writing. It will be performed at Edgefest by Charlie Bonner and directed by Rhiann Jeffrey.

“It was originally written for a comedian, but I felt it was an important story that could be told in a theatrical way,” says Jordan. “It’s about male vulnerability, about a man who really loves women but is always getting knocked back. It’s a story which urgently needs to be heard.”

Jordan herself will direct Fintan Brady's East Belfast Boy, a hard-edged, high-octane piece which was originally made and presented in a community context on the east side of the city. She describes its writing as "superb" and is fired up about working on it with the dynamic young actor Ryan McParland and alongside two internationally respected local creatives, choreographer Oona Doherty and DJ Phil Kieran.

Nobody in the artistic or wider community is left untouched by the fallout from the issues surrounding mental health

“Edgefest came about in a kind of symbiotic way between Patrick and myself,” she explains. “His play was developed through our Reveal programme and we found ourselves both making work which tapped into the same area. There’s a zeitgeist going on and the writing of these three plays reflects what is currently happening in society.”

Between early February and the end of May, Simon Magill, creative director at the MAC, has programmed an extended season looking at mental health in a wide variety of connotations and disciplines. It includes revivals of Pearse Elliot's Man in the Moon, Pauline Goldsmith's Bright Colours Only, Alice Malseed's It's Getting Harder and Harder for Me, Theatre RE's The Nature of Forgetting and Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party.

“All of us have a story to tell,” says Magill. “Nobody in the artistic or wider community is left untouched by the fallout from the issues surrounding mental health.

“In the context of our wider artistic programme it’s fitting that we are collaborating with two of Northern Ireland’s most vibrant theatre companies to present three divergent but complementary productions, exploring the many facets of the condition. The programme in general and the productions specifically do not flinch from the darker aspects of mental illness; they are human stories, by turns raw and darkly comic.”

The Man Who Fell to Pieces runs at the MAC from February 6th to 11th, then tours to mainstream venues and residential care homes, Magilligan Prison and community centres.

Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful and East Belfast Boy run singly and as a double bill from February 15th to March 3rd.