Mademoiselle F writer Vanessa Oakes and director Mark Evans give us a glimpse of what to expect from this powerful and extraordinary new play.
Mademoiselle F is convinced she’s stolen something but she can’t remember what. And now she can’t stop thinking about polar bears…
Ahead of the show taking to our B2 stage this October, we caught up with star writer Vanessa Oakes and director Mark Evans.
Tell us a bit about the story of Mademoiselle F.
Vanessa: Mademoiselle F is in part based on the story of a nineteenth-century French woman who was the first person to be diagnosed with what we now call OCD. The play explores her lived experience of OCD and how she tries to come to terms with her treatment in a Paris asylum. During her stay there, she encounters a Canadian polar bear from the twenty-first century who shares his own story of captivity, alienation, and climate change.
Mark: The story is about the relationship between Mademoiselle F and the polar bear that she can’t stop thinking about. It’s a story about the past and the present and about how we might take control of our future.
Where did the inspiration come from to tell this story?
Vanessa: I have OCD, but I have rarely seen a dramatization which resonates with my own lived experience of the condition. A lot of people are surprised when they find out that I have OCD and most immediately assume that I must be obsessed by cleaning. I’d noticed that certain aspects of modern life encouraged behaviours which looked like some of my own compulsions e.g. repeatedly checking mobile phones. I wanted to explore these everyday obsessions.
Mark: Telling a good story is so often about leaving room for the audience’s own imagination. We’ve tried to find ways of telling this story that create that space. It’s a story that draws you in to its own world.
The play originally made its premiere at the Shop Front Theatre last summer. How does it feel to be restaging it? Has anything changed?
Mark: It’s so exciting to be re-staging the play. When it opened last year there were so many restrictions in place – we had just come out of lockdown and there were strict limits on how many people could attend venues. We are delighted to be able to give more people the chance to see this extraordinary play.
We were knocked out by audience’s responses to the play, the warmth and humanity they found within it. It is great to be able to share this experience with more people.
Vanessa: While the script hasn’t changed, I expect that Mark and the cast will find lots of new things to explore in it – so inevitably this staging will be different. It’s always interesting to revisit a play and find new layers in it.
How does the story resonate with you?
Mark: Whilst we live through difficult times, we need to look after our own well-being and that of others. The natural world offers us sustenance and healing and we need to better recognise its value and importance in our lives.
People also seem more alert to issues around mental health, obsessive behaviour, treatment of animals and climate change now. After the hottest summer on record, there’s no doubt that the lives of arctic animals will be changing irrevocably for the worse – I’m sure Polar Bear’s words will resonate even more.
Vanessa: As an arts student in the 1980s, I once spent two weeks at a zoo observing, photographing and drawing the animals. It’s an experience which has never left me. As much as I laughed at the elephants who deliberately sprayed dirt at me, I can’t forget one large turtle who continually bashed its head into the metal door in its enclosure. I don’t think polar bears belong in zoos.
What do you hope audience members will take away from the play?
Vanessa: I hope it encourages people to consider how much impact our natural environment has on our mental well-being and to take some personal responsibility for its preservation.
Mark: I hope that they enjoy the play – its warmth and humanity, its humour and its imaginative way of exploring how we try and cope with our lives. And I hope that they think about the polar bears.
Why should audiences come to see Mademoiselle F?
Mark: This is a play that connects on many levels. It is much more than the sum of its parts. It has warmth, humour and beautiful performances. Come and explore how close you are to your own polar bear.
Vanessa: I don’t write plays to inform or educate people, I write plays to make people feel something. I hope this play will empower people to make the change they want to see in the world happen.