Saw Maura Pierlot’s Fragments; tried not to fall to pieces
by Rosalind Moran
Fragments is not an easy play to watch. It’s a series of monologues on mental health and social issues faced by young people, covering anxiety, depression, autism, transphobia, social media pressure, stressful home lives, popularity at school, and the feeling of being unprepared for the real world. Eight teens speak to the audience about who they are behind their masks. It’s fiction, but it feels real.
This play is quite special in that it was written by a local Canberran playwright, Maura Pierlot, and is therefore truly a work of this place and time. What’s more, director Shelly Higgs has developed this play in partnership with an ensemble of up-and-coming Canberra actors, all of whom gave outstanding performances in emotionally taxing roles. It’s exciting to see a piece of theatre so grounded in the local community. Fragments is also noteworthy for its aim to offer a sense of agency to young people who may not feel their experiences of mental health are accurately represented or understood, in theatre and otherwise. And for what it’s worth, the play will undoubtedly help start many important conversations.
While Fragments was engrossing, it was also deeply confronting. I was aware the subject matter would be heavy but I hadn’t quite realised how relentlessly sad and urgent the play would be. There were occasional moments of humour or eccentricity that helped lighten the mood: for example, the set changes where the actors moved robotically were clever and effective, as were the sequences involving video game music and a voiceover about coding. The overall tone of the play, however, was sombre and often quite distressing.
Of course, it’s great these conversations are being placed in the spotlight, especially through an accessible platform such as a technically fictitious play about mental health. One could imagine parents of children watching this play and resolving to work towards better conversations with their teens. Nevertheless, the play was often too intense and confronting, at least for this reviewer: the words coming out of the characters’ mouths ranged among the cruellest, saddest things people can say to or about themselves, and listening to them spoken back to the audience was sometimes like hearing my own worst demons outside of my body at last (i.e. alarming, to say the least!). I note this partly because I wouldn’t be surprised if other audience members felt the same way – everyone has their anxieties, their stresses, their black dogs. That’s not to diminish to good work of the play; but it is worth noting that Fragments is not necessarily for everyone, and should definitely be approached with caution by people suffering poor mental health.
That said, I appreciated many aspects of the play, from the excellent acting to the simple set – no overreliance on props here. The depiction of depression was also very impressive, with two actors swathed in a dark sheet writhing over one of the characters in truly terrifying fashion. What’s more, the sound effects were highly effective in depicting mood – and I loved the use of the sound of waves.
By the end of the play, I also found myself drawing comparisons between Fragments and The Waves by Virginia Woolf. In The Waves, six protagonists offer soliloquies on their innermost thoughts, and are all bound together by a seventh character, the beloved Percival, to whom they each refer – although he never speaks. In Fragments, the characters are similarly self-reflective, and they also all mention the charismatic and popular Mason, the character who would have to be the protagonist were there a lead among the eight. Coupled with the sound effect of waves at different points throughout the play, this flattering parallel couldn’t help but stick.
In summary, Fragments is a raw and contemporary play that blends a smidgeon of Woolf, something of The Breakfast Club’s vibe, and a whole lot of modern concerns and challenges faced by Australian teens today. There’s merit to found if you go and watch it – but be warned that you might just fall to pieces in the process.
Fragments by Maura Pierlot ran from Wednesday 23 October to Sunday 27 October at The Street Theatre, Canberra. Length: 75 minutes, no interval.