“Do you value yourself?”
by Rosalind Moran
Breaking The Castle is a work of empathy in more than one way. The protagonist is challenged to learn to like himself. The audience is led through a story that humanises people with addiction issues, encouraging compassion for those who have fallen between the cracks. And the playwright himself, Peter Cook – who is also the play’s sole actor – evidently grappled with his own history in bringing this play to the stage. A story with elements drawn from real life, Breaking The Castle is the creation of someone who has faced demons and learnt to accept them as part of his story – making this play both powerful and moving.
The play’s protagonist, Dave, is a struggling actor with substance abuse and mental health issues arising from past trauma as well as current precarity. Through exploring his life and how it has led to his current rock-bottom state, the play touches upon various social and cultural issues that merit interrogation, for these are the issues that can ruin lives and have someone labelled ‘troubled’ or ‘bad’ in the eyes of society. These issues include sexual abuse, conflict-ridden families, the inability to effectively grieve for a lost loved one, and the ongoing erosion of one’s self-worth through criticism.
Throughout the play, we notably see how different people – such as parents, strangers, and casting agents – contribute to Dave feeling undervalued and hopeless, which helps fuel his self-loathing, self-harm, and desire to forget. In this way, the play provides a powerful reminder of the importance of seeing and listening to others and of recognising that everyone has something to offer. Indeed, one of the most heart-breaking moments in the play is when Dave experiences a drug-induced psychotic episode and is desperate to be near others in order to feel safe. As he stands on a street corner, a stranger tries to talk to him but soon gives up, saying “You’re a piece of shit.” Dave, even in his drug-induced haze, hears these words clearly. “I know,” he replies.
The audience watched his face fall, his posture slump. You could have heard a pin drop.
This play has a lot to offer. It shows both how a person can become an addict as well as the factors that can lead to their recovery. It explores how having a friend or a family member who doesn’t give up on you can mean the difference between recovery and a life on the streets. It exposes the class factors embedded in addiction and recovery, hammering home the fact that beating addiction is often less about willpower than it is about support networks and money. And in some of its most darkly humorous moments, the play even skewers some of the exploitative and degrading norms within the acting industry. In short, it’s ambitious in the best kind of way.
Breaking The Castle’s staging and production is also a highlight. The set is simple yet inventive: a jagged, tilted floor serves as the stage, and its blunt unevenness reflects the fragmented psyche of the play’s protagonist. Littered with takeaway containers, cigarettes, bottles, and various other forlorn items, the set offers every prop needed to tell the story without the space looking artificial or overdone. Lighting and sound effects help magnify Cook’s changes in mood as he navigates drug highs and terrible lows. Cook’s acting is also impressive as he bounces between characters and swings across the full pendulum of emotions – his performance on opening night was almost ironically good, considering his main character is an actor who struggles to find work. Indeed, it is arguably above all the energy and emotion Cook brings to his play that helps make it a success: his performance is truly outstanding.
The strong message underpinning the play helps give it its value: the story’s emphasis on the importance of believing in people and fostering their self-worth is touching and merits being shared. Lines such as “no-one chooses to become an addict” and “if you don’t address trauma, you can’t address drug addiction” also stood out as points that need to be communicated and repeated within our society – meaning this play has valuable potential as a teachable work of art.
That said, determining the value of this play is not wholly clear cut: addiction is a widely-explored theme and the story of a recovering addict – like the quintessential coming-out story, for example – has been explored many times before. This means it can be difficult to make stories like these ones fresh; and in the case of Breaking The Castle, I’d argue the story doesn’t necessarily offer an interpretation that is radically new. Dave is indeed an everyman of addiction, and one could imagine a play very similar to this one being developed elsewhere by someone who has undergone similar experiences.
Nevertheless, there is also something powerful about the decision to make Dave such a broadly relatable character. His experience is not depicted as being so unique that it could have only happened to him; rather, his is the tale of just another person trying to make a place for themselves in this world. It humanises those who are often ignored and encourages a philosophy of compassion – a laudable achievement for any creative work.
The opening night performance of Breaking The Castle received a standing ovation. It was well-deserved.
Breaking The Castle by Peter Cook will run until Saturday 14 March at The Street Theatre, Canberra. Length: 75 minutes, no interval.
Image credits: Shelly Higgs