The Blue Room’s latest show, Hold Your Breath (Count to 10), provides an intimate and discomforting exploration into the sometimes wet and often messy world of mental illness.

We begin with Daley King (assumed naked) in a bathtub, surrounded by sud-streaked mirrors – he’s counting to 10. His therapist (Amy Murray) sits behind him, guiding him through a breathing exercise. Quickly, the play dissolves out of chronological time and we are taken through a series of visceral snapshots of Daley’s everyday struggle with mental illness. The only constant seems to be the play itself; the play he is brainstorming with his therapist, writing, and performing, all at once. The result is a dizzying and disconcerting portrayal of one man’s battle with his brain.

Although hardly anything moves on stage besides Daley (clad only in a pair of bathers and goggles) and his therapist, Scott McArdie’s intense lighting works brilliantly to create a series of distinct worlds. At one point, as the lights flash off, Daley’s therapist leans over the bath and the acid greens catch her hollowed cheekbones, rendering her terrifying to both the audience and the shrinking Daley who slips further into the bathtub. This effect was magnified by the elegant and striking set design by Sarah Chiricilli. Throughout the play there are several moments where the audience becomes aware of the multiplicity of Daleys staring back at them through the filthy mirrors. In such an intimate and self-referential piece, it is telling that he is surrounded by distorted reflections of himself.

I found myself trying to think of Daley as a character in spite of his insistence that he was more himself in this play than he is outside of it. As a work of fiction his anecdotes and flaws were more palatable. In the rare moments I could convince myself he was a construction, I could shake off my discomfort at the intimacy and openness he was displaying. Yet Daley refuses to let the audience retreat from the reality of his story; consistently he reminds you – through brutal honesty and direct confrontation – that this is his experience, as real as they come.

Daley’s relationship with his therapist is clinical to begin with and gradually increases in intimacy until she is seated in the bathtub with him. She is a foil for Daley’s exploration into his struggle with mental illness. Their dialogue could essentially be a monologue – with her providing a backboard off of which Daley bounces everything from traumatic episodes to ideas for his new play. When their discussion stuck to this format, the audience was given an uncommon taste of the true reality of therapist-client relationships; unlike many other social interactions it is not two way, there is no equality of give and take. However, as the play continued, their relationship became more intimate and ventured into the world of fantasy. Your beautiful therapist will not get into the bath with you – no matter how poignant a metaphor it may make on stage.

In a society that so often looks unflinchingly at the lives of the mentally ill, Hold Your Breath (Count to 10) is refreshing in its refusal to turn away from the ugly and monotonous reality of living with a mental illness. Don’t go expecting to feel comforted – you will flinch and you will squirm.

Hold Your Breath (Count to 10) was showing at The Blue Room Theatre on the following dates 23 – 28 April & 1 – 12 May 2018.

Caitlin Carr