RSC actor Mark Lockyer makes a drama about his breakdown

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Herald arts talks to actor Mark Lockyer about his biographical play Living With The Lights On – which deals with his mental breakdown. The play runs at Warwick Arts Centre from 1st to 4th November

Theatre is about actors telling stories — and Actors Touring Company is about actors taking those stories on the road, to theatres around the country and the world. Now Mark Lockyer — who was last seen in Stratford in the RSC’s The Alchemist last year — is to take his own story out to theatres around the UK and to Spain and Finland.

And it is an utterly remarkable and searingly honest one: in Living With the Lights On, he tells a rapt audience about his own battle with severe mental illness.

After graduating from RADA he had joined the National Theatre where he was in productions directed by Richard Eyre, Declan Donnellan and Nicholas Hytner (including Hytner’s South Bank debut with Ghetto and the original production of The Madness of George III), before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company. So his career was very much in the ascendancy.

“I’d had a very successful season with the RSC in 1993 appearing in productions of The Merchant of Venice, King Lear and The Tempest,” he explains about the rapid descent that followed. “I’d been commended and came second in the Ian Charleston Award for classical actors under 30, but I realised at the end of that season that things were starting to become slightly strange.

“I went home to my mum at end of the season in 1993, it was January and we started drinking together, and I remember very clearly that we were having vodka and tonic, and the next thing I knew was that I was shouting at her at the top of my voice and being very abusive, then I woke up the next morning and didn’t know why I’d done it. It began this inexplicable descent of shame, really, and trying to protect myself and failing miserably.”

A year later, he was back at the RSC, playing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and roles in The Taming of the Shrew and The Cherry Orchard. While he was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet, he remembers an incident when director Adrian Noble pulled him to one side. “He told me, ‘Mark, you’re really getting on my nerves, I’ve been rehearsing with you all day, you’ve give me eight different versions of Mercutio, — just go home and pick one and stay with it and rehearse that!’”

It is, he says now, “a great part to play when you’re bipolar and feeling high — my imagination was firing on all cylinders.”

But highs are followed by extreme lows. “I started drinking heavily and was taking great enjoyment from sticking a spanner in the works at every opportunity, including onstage. I was very unwell — life became like being in my own film, in which I cut one day to my home in Stratford realising I’d been in bed all day, it was 5pm and I hadn’t eaten and hadn’t washed and had to do Mercutio that night.”

He ended up walking out of the show. “I was in and out of psychiatric units, but I had no real diagnosis. Bipolar disorder was a fantastically difficult thing to diagnose. I was put on Prozac, and putting a manic depressive on that meant ended up as high as a kite. I was living like a pig but hiding it well, or thinking I was. Over the next year and a half I lived on the road, spent vast amounts of time in psychiatric hospitals and was drinking a lot.”

And then something very serious indeed happened — a story he tells in the show with shocking candour — which lead him to his lowest point yet, but more importantly to recovery. “While I was being detoxed, I was finally diagnosed with severe mixed state bipolar disorder.”

It took him some eight years to get back on his feet, including a period of homelessness and time in Belmarsh Prison. “I was ill for a very long time — it didn’t take me months to get better, it took years. I lost everything.” He says now of bipolar illness, “It’s vicious and nasty — people’s lives are wrecked forever with this illness.”

His own story, however, does not end in defeat, but in recovery. And eventually, back in work.

One of the first people to give him a job was director Ramin Gray. As Gray puts it: “We met and he told me the whole story. And that he’d written a show about it. He came to the office and did a private performance of it. It was electrifying — and we immediately thought about how to share it more broadly, not only in theatres but also in mental health institutions and halfway houses that he’s been to and knows. My father is Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, and one of early performances there was for an audience of psychiatrists. Mark has this rare ability to be bracingly and warmly honest about what he’s been through.”

And now Mark is sharing that story. As he puts it: “I have no regrets really about what happened to me. I’m sad of course about what I did to other people, but I had to go through that to get to here and where I am today. I now call a spade a spade — I’m honest with myself and others, and that’s what keeps me well.”

And inspiring others with that story is another way to share the good news of his recovery. “The wonderful thing about embarking on a tour is that more people will hear the tale. To tell a story of hope and conquering against impossible odds is a dynamic everyone understands and loves to hear, don’t they? I was the underdog . In fact many thought I was no better than a dog come to think of it with some of my antics… But a journey of mastering and understanding yourself is as epic as great feats of climbing Everest and derring-do. The show is personal, honest, terrifying, inconsistent and hilarious, as we all are. I’m telling the story, but each and every audience member knows what is happening to me could happen to them. It’s about people. All of us. Illness doesn’t discriminate. It’s a delight to take it around the country and abroad, knowing that the show has touched people.”

WHEN AND WHERE: Living with the Lights On — produced by Actors Touring Company and directed by Ramin Gray — is on at the Warwick Arts Centre from 1st to 4th November at 7.45pm. Tickets are £18, concessions £16 and under 26s £11. Call 024 7652 4524 or visit www.warwickartscentre.co.uk