The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety

Birmingham Rep


Get ready for a sort of Talking Heads for manic depressives and anyone whose life is riddled with anxiety – this is the tortured mind laid bare by renowned Spanish director Calixto Bieito in this world premiere at Birmingham Rep.

He is perhaps best known for his stagings, often controversial, of the classics whether it be Shakespeare or opera, but here he finds another stage – one in the theatre of the mind.

Bieito has suffered from anxiety attacks since he was a child and an incident when his friend died after merely falling from his bicycle, so has not only an empathy but a shared expereince with sufferers.

Mental illness and disorders are hidden conditions, people might boast about a broken arm or laugh at the cause, even get friends to sign the cast, but a broken mind? Out of sight and, quite literally here, out of mind.

The director has drawn on Robert Burton’s 400-year-old tract The Anatomy of Melancholy, as well as more modern works such as The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han, US author David Foster Wallace, Swede Stig Dagerman and, perhaps the key to it all, WH Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety.

The result is four characters and four musicians with four lives to reveal. There is no plot, no storyline, no beginning or end, no connection between them – just a quartet of disparate souls and the inner workings that sets them apart from each other and what we see as normal.

We never have names, the characters are anonymous, each an Everyman walking some stony remote path in the darker, overgrown corners of the mind.


Nick Harris

There is Nick Harris’s character who has so many phobias he probably has a phobia about them . . . and a phobia about having a phobia about phobias – along with an anxiety about pretty well anything you could have an anxiety about, and then some.

He has been through just about every anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug known to man along with pretty well any wine or spirit you care to mention. There is no therapy or help group he hasn't tried, no avenue promising relief he hasn't entered. He is so pilled up, so frightened of appearing anxious that he seems to glide along at work where his colleagues see him as a sea of calm in their troubled world . . . how little they know.

But at least he can manage to smile about his predicament, even inject some humour and bring some laughs, but, behind the smiles and self deprecation, this is anxiety with a capital A, writ large with neon flashing lights.

Mairead McKinley’s character is perhaps where sex rears its ugly head – head being the operative word in her case. She is anxious about getting oral sex right for her man, and, it seems, a lot of other men, in a world where she has been sexually, brutally abused by strangers. She has enough sexual hang-ups to keep a therapist in work for life. To her sex has become a drug and, like most drugs, has a terrible price to pay. Suicide is never far from her thoughts. She is the only one who interacts with the others . . . just the men, mind.

Then there is the poster boy for melancholy, played by Miltos Yerolemou. Here is a bloke philosophising about man and his place in the order of things. In his treatise on humankind he manages to avoid any hint of love, compassion or happiness. His is a depressing catalogue of doom and gloom to a point where he decides it is not worth continuing.

man and woman

Miltos Yerolemou and Mairead McKinley

Finally Cathy Tyson’s character is one it is easier to relate to, easier to understand; any parent can slip into her shoes. The proceeding trio are irrational with a logic we cannot really follow. Unless we have been there it is an alien land.

Tyson gives us a mother who has lost a son. He has died because of circumstance, because of fate, because of a perfect conjunction of time and place – a family driving to the seaside, a child returning from an errand, two disparate events colliding in a single heart-rending moment.

The fault is fate but she will always blame herself. Blame for forgetting to buy the sugar her son had gone to borrow from a neighbour, blame for sending him to the neighbour, blame for . . .

She frets, she worries, and puts on lipstick as a mask as she does not want to be known in the village as the woman who lost a son, although, behind the red lips, behind the mask, she knows that is exactly who she is and always will be.

cathy mother 

Cathy Tyson

Around our quartet of damaged minds are the Heath string quartet playing, in short sections, first Legeti’s String quartet No.2, then, quite beautifully, Beethoven’s String Quartet No 11, Opis 95,

I must say I hated the former. If you have seen The Ladykillers, it reminded me a little of the string quartet in that, but each to his own. Musicians and musical purists can see merit in it and what a boring world it would be if all music sounded the same.

And, I can see why Bieito chose it. This is not an easy, relaxed piece, it is music that appears anxious, disjointed, with no obvious pattern or melody, music that could well be the theme tune of a troubled mind.

Staging by Bieito and Annemarie Bulla is imaginative with scores of music stands and a wall almost to the flies made of chairs of the type you might find in a canteen, a wall with its own moment of drama to come.

Each character has a chair and music stand, but no music, or instrument. Each musician has a chair but never sits, apart from the cellist on a raised dias.

The acting, and playing, cannot be faulted and if the purpose was to confront us with the realities of mental problems then it is fair to say it succeeded, but I must admit I found it neither an easy nor a satisfying watch, but perhaps that was the point. After all, mental illness should never be seen as entertainment. There but for the grace of God . . . To 19-05-18.

Roger Clarke


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