SICK! Festival 2015, preview: Art against the unspeakable

Polly Checkland Harding

From an art-inspired café to award-winning theatre and high profile author events, SICK! Festival takes a creative look at some difficult issues.

SICK! Festival has taboo topics firmly on its agenda. Few are the international festivals that use secret locations, award-winning plays and a pineapple-tastic art café to explore suicide, abuse and ill health. Even the name feels challenging, like a provocative hybrid between teenage slang and the troubled way we sometimes think about mental and physical illness. Yet its programme sets out to highlight experiences that, although at times deeply personal, connect us as individuals.

Now, SICK! Festival is branching out from Brighton to Manchester, bringing with it events that range from Slaptalk, a six-hour blend of scripted pre-boxing match insults at the Whitworth, to Lippy, a highly-acclaimed Irish play about an aunt and her three nieces who boarded themselves into their County Kildare home 13 years ago in a 40-day suicide pact. Few are the events without an undercurrent: the critically-acclaimed The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland at The Lowry, for instance, explores schizophrenia via experimental theatre techniques, while the award-winning Nirbhaya at Contact, which is also part of the Wonder Women Festival, looks at the fall-out from horrific sexual abuse in India.

Secret locations, award-winning plays and a pineapple-tastic art café

Yet what’s striking about the line-up is the unusual way in which these issues are tackled. Take Tell me love is real as an example: it stems from the harrowing coincidence whereby two performers in hotel rooms on the West Coast of America over-dosed on Xanax in the winter of 2012. One, Whitney Houston, died, while the other, Zachary Oberzan, author of this show, survived. Two separate talks at Manchester Museum, meanwhile, ask first ‘Is there ever such a thing as a rational suicide?’ and second why there’s such a huge discrepancy between reported rape and convictions.

Considered together, it’s a challenging programme – and it’s meant to be. What’s on offer is a real and serious attempt to use art and artists to discuss some of the hardest subjects out there. From authors like Emma Jane Unsworth and Matt Haig (who joins a panel to talk about why tragic stories sell) to the astonishingly dedicated filmmakers behind suicide documentary The Bridge, which took a year to film, those involved are committed to shifting such topics out from the unspoken and into creative and engaging conversations – ones that we think should be continued at that pineapple-tastic art café we mentioned.

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