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Blue

by Joe Ward Munrow

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Cast: 3f 5m

A disquieting and darkly funny play which shines a light on the state of mental-health services in modern Britain.

Set in a psychiatric unit, Blue looks at both sides of mental-health care – those who receive it, and those who give it. It explores the difficulties and complexities of life under observation, and shows how beautiful moments can be found even in the most fragile of circumstances.

Blue was first performed at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre, before performances at the Gate Theatre, London.

Content guidance: This play contains strong language, and exploration of adult themes including mental health, suicide and child abuse.

About the author

Joe Ward Munrow is a playwright from Deptford, south-east London, who now lives in Liverpool. His other plays include Held (Liverpool Playhouse Studio), The Busker (BBC Radio 4), Hercules and Phoebe (National Theatre ‘Let’s Play’) and The Laundry (Brockley Jack Studio Theatre). In 2018 his play Screaming Heart won the Mercury/Weinberger Playwriting Prize. Joe is also currently writer-on-attachment at the National Theatre Studio.

Interview with Joe Ward Munrow

Blue is about mental-health care. What drew you to this subject? ​

I suppose the short answer is that various people that I love and care about have had different interactions with mental-health institutions. So, I wanted to explore that, the small insights I’d had and go further and see where that took me.

But also, as a playwright, I wanted to look at the intersection of drama and real life. When you start writing plays, one of the first things you learn about the 'classic' play is that there’s a protagonist who has a clear, high-stakes goal that they struggle towards. In drama the victories can often appear clear and final, whereas, in real life, if you’re struggling with depression for instance, a victory could be as simple and as difficult as getting out of bed or putting your socks on. So, I wanted to explore how the less obviously dramatic stories live on stage, whether we can spend time with these characters and simply watch them living moment to moment and whether that could engage an audience.

 

Do you think the play will challenge what people think they know about mental-health care and mental illness?

Perhaps but generally I don’t start writing a play with an intent to be educative or to change people’s minds. I try and follow what I find interesting, or upsetting, or moving and hope that it might do the same for an audience. However, the research I did for the play definitely gave me a greater understanding of how difficult, and how much sacrifice there is, in working in a mental-health setting. There’s a growing awareness of the stigma around mental health conditions but I also think that attitudes toward professionals who care for people with mental-health conditions are not as appreciative or as positive as they could be. It’s a job that involves caring for people under very difficult, emotive and complex circumstances. I think that can go unnoticed and so if Blue did give an audience a greater awareness of this then that would be great. However, it wasn’t my primary aim, my main aim was to try and immerse the audience in the world of mental-health care rather than give them my opinion on that world.

What was the research process like for writing the play?

 

I have a friend, Joe Abel, who I knew worked in a mental-health setting but I’d never really discussed it any real depth with him. When I started working on Blue I was primarily looking at it from the viewpoint of a character who has been placed in a mental-health unit but wanted to know what it was like to work in one as well. As soon as I spoke to him about his work, a whole complex world was opened up to me that I knew nothing about. I found it fascinating, not least because it became clear to me that Joe was doing a job that I didn’t have the ability, or the fortitude, to do. It didn’t hurt that he’s a very insightful and articulate human as well. So, he was my main source of help for the play and then there was the usual watching of documentaries and reading of books.

 

However, it’s important to stress that Blue is a play and not a documentary, it doesn’t need to be as there are loads of brilliant documentaries about the state of mental health services in the UK. In Blue I was trying to get closer to the feeling, the emotive content of what modern mental-health care can feel like, rather than a factual recounting of a specific mental-health unit.

 

Do you have any advice for actors performing the play, or for directors staging it?

 

I think for actors – and this is going to sound like generic acting advice but bear with me – try your hardest to find the truth of it. I think playing a character who has been diagnosed with a mental-health condition is a huge challenge and comes with a great deal of responsibility as an actor. I think you owe it to the people who actually live under these circumstances, and their friends and family, to do your research. This doesn’t mean getting it 'right', as this is always a massive block to creativity, and everyone’s experience of mental health and various diagnoses is different, but it does mean doing the work, the research, and being respectful. I think a key part of this is not 'othering' the person who has been diagnosed with a mental-health condition and realising that mental health exists on a spectrum.

I don’t have any advice for directors. I think a play is a gift from a writer to a director. I wouldn’t want to tell a director what to do with the play anymore then I would want a director to tell me how to write it.