Hard Shell, Soft Belly: A Review of Such Stuff As Dreams
Rewritten and remounted after a season at Te Pou earlier this year, Such Stuff As Dreams is a romance about a restless barista and a schizophrenic busker. New Volumes writer India Essuah reviews a show whose appeal lies in the little things.
It’s hard not to be reminded of the awkward charm of Eagle vs Shark during the beginning of Such Stuff As Dreams. Claire (Catherine Yates) and Alfie (Tyler Wilson-Kokiri) meet at a party. Claire is wearing an owl costume, Alfie an armadillo, and as they dance and poke fun at each other’s costumes, we’re quickly at ease, laughing along to a consistently quick-witted script. Then all of a sudden, mid-chuckle, Alfie is overwhelmed with a panic attack; the whimsy crashes.
This crash is brought on by Alfie’s near-constant companion Morph (Mark Mockridge). Morph is spritely and brash in equal measure: after all, he’s a confrontingly loud embodiment of Alfie’s schizophrenia. Alfie does his best to shoot the breeze with Claire, but Morph spouts dark thoughts and doubts that are intense, frustrating and distracting. Mockbridge, writer Camilla Walker and director Adam Rohe use Morph to paint a picture of what it could be like to live with an unpredictable stream of voices inside your head.
Through Morph, we get a sense of, as Alfie puts it, “how much editing goes into appearing normal” moment to moment. It’s not subtle – Such Stuff As Dreams doesn’t err on the side of understatement. Claire and Alfie get into a yelling match early on, her temper and his stubbornness clashing in one of their first scenes. Alfie repeatedly returns to his hard-shelled armadillo costume. And Morph’s unrelenting presence makes us acutely aware of everything Alfie is thinking (or, at least, the most negative of those things).
All of this could read as obvious, but the lack of pretension is refreshing. It aligns with who Alfie is as a character; we’re largely shown things from Alfie’s point of view, and through that we learn that he’s as genuine and as straightforward as he can possibly be. He’s relatable and trustworthy, and the show emphasises that through its attention to detail, creating a familiar sense of the everyday before asking you to see it from a new point of view.
It’s not subtle – Such Stuff As Dreams doesn’t err on the side of understatement.
Such Stuff As Dreams creates its most endearing moments through in its careful handling of the smallest details. The audience is treated to unapologetically awkward scene changes that provide some of the show’s funniest moments; the crew struggles to switch out the set’s smallest parts while narrating the transition in low voices, lightening the mood between intense moments. The set, too, is grimy and reminiscent of a date spot you might pick so you can look ‘chill’ to your date. The walls are adorned with worryingly low food-grade signs, and tags alluding to local actors, shows and theatres. These imperfections balance out the Shakespearean references or deeper conversations and keep the love story from feeling too lofty or cheesy. They also add realism; this love story feels relaxed, like dating in 2018, and it achieves that without resorting to tired tropes about Tinder and technology.
Such Stuff As Dreams never reaches this level of thoughtful detail with Claire, though. Claire is a strung-out barista, a familiar archetype as she hunts through her seemingly bottomless apron pocket, pulling out an array of things she uses for stress relief as she searches for a lighter. But Claire also has a well of patience for Alfie, changing her approach to him after a fiery initial encounter while he’s busking outside her work. Claire grapples with Alfie’s changing moods and tone with eyebrows perpetually raised. She doesn’t get worked up when he shouts unexpectedly and she continues conversations when he asks, even when it’s clear he’s distracted by something.
Claire’s patience drives the play, drawing her closer to Alfie when you half expect her to turn away. For example, when Alfie exasperatedly explains that there’s no perfect configuration for a tray of condiments, Claire recognises the chaotic feelings it inspires in him, how they make it hopelessly hard for him to do the simplest of things. In response, she calmly asks him questions before revealing that she’s in the habit of skipping sauces: she’s eight years into recovery from an eating disorder. She de-escalates him without condescending to him; she creates something of a bond between them. We get an insight into her acceptance when Alfie’s thoughts seem far from linear and see that she understands there’s more than one kind of logic.
Claire’s confession isn’t explained further, though, and feels tokenistic. This feeds into a broader issue: there’s still a lot we don’t know about Claire. We get hints of the internal conflicts she faces: when Alfie asks her if she likes him or just “thinks he’s a dick,” she answers, “Yes?” But her responses to Alfie start to seem too breezy and she comes off as more passive later in the play than she does in the opening scenes, in which she speaks her mind to anyone who’ll listen. It’s less believable when she’s put in the backseat. It would have added to the depth of her character, her connection with Alfie, and the show as a whole, if we were let into her head a little more to fill in the gaps. It would also have been more satisfying to watch the pair move through a situation that held more tension on both sides; it could have added a new layer to Claire’s character and to the connection between her and Alfie.
Such Stuff As Dreams dispels pervasive, conventional notions of what romantic bravery might look like and shows us what can happen when two people try their best to get to know one another, without rigid expectations and without the luxury of only showing each other their best sides.
Just as quickly as we were swept in, though, Alfie suddenly asks, “Did you get it?” and the play tumbles to a halt. The question feels quite sudden, though by this point I trust that we’re meant to be caught a little off guard. Alfie then goes on to explain why he’s drawn to the armadillo costume. He tells us he’s drawn to its hard shell and soft belly, and at this point Walker could be accused of overdoing the metaphor. However, Such Stuff As Dreams instead uses this moment to cement the feeling that we’re being met by a friend who’s genuinely trying to make something clear to us and Alfie’s earnestness and warmth drowns out these potential criticisms.
It’s interesting to note here that organisations like the Mental Health Foundation point out that the idea that schizophrenia is akin to having a ‘split personality’ is a myth, with this being a much rarer condition. With his outlandish mohawk and abrasive manner, Morph obviously exists as a separate character to Alfie – the part of him that’s hardest to love. This raises the question of whether this portrayal is perpetuating a misunderstanding rather than providing clarity. However, Morph’s characterisation could also be suggesting that Alfie sees the illness as a part of himself, able to be divided and named separately to ‘who he is’ as a person. Because we can see and hear Morph, Alfie’s actions make perfect sense. In this way Morph is an effective character, but this is undermined by his being representative of a pervasive myth.
Posing the question “WTF is love?”, Such Stuff As Dreams answers that it involves showing up for the coincidental connections we make; trusting that the person we hastily organised a date with does in fact want to be spending time with us; choosing not to retreat inside our well-worn armadillo costume and recite fun facts that no one asked for. Such Stuff As Dreams dispels pervasive, conventional notions of what romantic bravery might look like and shows us what can happen when two people try their best to get to know one another, without rigid expectations and without the luxury of only showing each other their best sides.
Such Stuff As Dreams also fills a gap in the conversation around mental health, which can oscillate between the technicalities of policy discussions and stories of great struggle. While these are obviously important they don’t fit very neatly into day-to-day life, where our connection to mental illness is much more likely to occur. Such Stuff As Dreams convincingly maps the interactions between mental illness and the outside world over the course of a somewhat typical day. It offers a glimpse into a lived reality while never claiming to be universal; it finds strength in its specificity and magic in the mundane.
Such Stuff As Dreams runs from November 6 to November 10 at Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.
This piece is presented as part of our New Volumes critical writing partnership with Basement Theatre. Basement Theatre covers the costs of paying our writers while we retain all editorial control. You can read more about the programme here.