One weekend at University a friend came to stay at my family home with me. I’m from beautiful countryside and what it lacks in easy proximity to, well – anything, it makes up for in clean air and a feeling of total solitude. My family were away so there was no lift from the bus stop. The drive is only about 10 minutes so I thought, ‘yeah, we’ll walk it in about... 20?’ When my parents tried to explain that I was just wrong about that, their suggestions were easy and logical. But I refused a lift from a neighbour and balked at the thought of splurging five quid on a taxi because I still thought I was right.
So, we got off the bus at about 11pm. We took the turn into the village and walked on the road because there is no path until you reach the school. There are also no street lights and it was dark. Soon we had no spill from the main road and the darkness was absolute. I noticed I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and I couldn’t see my friend. We instinctively linked arms, clutching maybe just a bit too tightly. Using the light from our phones we could make out the next little bit of road to walk onto and dodge the walls of bushes and branches. It felt like walking into a void. So we spoke and walked. We didn’t stop walking and definitely didn’t stop talking.
It felt ages before we hit the lit path but from there we were almost trotting to get to the house. When we got in we turned on every light and spent more than normal ensuring we’d locked the door behind us. And then we breathed. And laughed. And ‘ohmygodthatwasterrifyingIcouldn’tseeyouIthoughtwemightdie’ in various forms spilled out of us as we vomited our articulated fear all over each other.
You see, although we hadn’t stopped talking on our trek through oblivion, neither of us at any point mentioned the dark. There was no utterance of being scared, no solidarity in our terror. We had ended up chatting about really random crap. We didn’t know how to deal with the black pit we had to get through to get home so we just didn’t talk about. We didn’t know what to say but we knew how to make the other laugh.
I think suicide scares us. It scares me. I can’t make sense of it.
The idea of a death by choice causes our brains to fuzz. It presents a block. There is no clarity of thought, no way to lucidly understand it. When Milly and I first met to discuss Dust, she was able to articulate being on the edge of that choice. She would describe her route through darkness but there was no discernible exit point, no lit path home. This is how I first found my way into the story of the play. The protagonist, Alice, felt trapped within life. And with no clear escape, she saw death as the only way out. As I understood it, Alice could be in the same place as her friends and her family but where they navigated easily in light, she was overwhelmed by darkness. And when she clutched too tightly how could they know her fear? When she spoke, she talked of anything but how she was feeling.
Where Milly could speak from the point of view of Alice. I could recognise the helplessness, defensiveness and even boredom of those around her in life and their guilt, anger and eventual self-protection in the aftermath of her death. We spoke honestly at every point and came up against so many ‘whys’. And I kept coming back to ‘Yes, but why did she kill herself?’. That’s what audiences will want to know. That’s what I wanted to know. That’s why we’re so fascinated by it in fiction – isn’t it? It’s like a riff on murder mystery genre but the perpetrator isn’t a human, it’s a reason. We need reasons because if there’s a reason it will make sense. But suicide doesn’t make sense – not to me, anyway. To try and make sense of it denies its truth. We didn’t want to give reasons where there were none. So, we focussed on the idea of someone who needs to escape. We wanted to understand what that way out might look like.
We could only guess at an afterlife. So, we tried to invert the notion of Alice’s entrapment in life, where she felt stuck and distant and numb. Where the people around her were once real, they are ghosts she cannot connect with. In her death she retraces moments that led to her choice as her own way of understanding. And in every moment she sees from the outside an inability to connect. Alice didn’t know how to talk about how she felt and neither did those around her. But in death she can see that they were trying.
Pop culture romanticises suicide, religion has pronounced it a sin and media reduces it to click-bait. We exist in states of binary because it’s comfortable. We like good and bad, right and wrong, in or out. Discussions around mental health are blazing hotbeds of social discomfort. They’re the empty bars we avoid where the lights are too bright, and the dance floor is always sticky. The people you will find there, they drink alone. Theatre has always been magical to me for it’s potential to connect publicly in such a private way. It’s the barwoman who says something that, even if only for a moment, reminds you you’re not alone.
Dust is about Alice’s true account of her depression, her suicide ideation and her death. It tries to be very honest about how that feels, and it tries to access how it might feel for the people around her. And we do not think that Alice’s specific story can possibly be the same as anyone else’s.
I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand depression in the varying forms I have seen it affect people I know. I can recognise it now. I am open to it. I am more tolerant of my own inability to present a solution or identify the cause. I’m more comfortable that someone can feel how they feel just because. But I cannot help it. I cannot solve it. In it’s journey from rehearsal room to Edinburgh, to Soho and now to Trafalgar Studios, we have never sought to provide a solution to prevent suicide or a reason for why people consider it. But with each reincarnation of Dust, we have deepened our belief that suicide is not an escape. It asks how we can begin to talk to each other more.
Later that night at my house, my friend told me that she’d truly been terrified. ‘I know! Me too!’, I said. ‘Yeah, but you knew where you were going’.
Dust by Milly Thomas
Trafalgar Studios 2, 14 Whitehall, Westminster, London SW1A 2DY
Tuesday 4th September – Saturday 13th October 2018