In just 45 minutes, Death Grip manages to give a humorous, but honest, insight into depression in a gay relationship. Adam has lived in his boyfriend Jay’s bedroom for, what is later revealed, to be an entire year. It is a highly dysfunctional relationship, but though it is strained, it doesn’t lack love. Adam is constantly urged by Jay to leave the room, to go downstairs, to make a cup of tea, to go to the shops. There is a subtlety in this depiction of depression: it does not need to be massively dramatic and over-played, but aptly shows the struggle of ‘little’ things- How to make a cup of tea? How to get out of bed? Shower? Go downstairs? This play is not designed to give answers, it shows struggle and generates questions.
The most impressive thing about this production is that it is written by a student, Frey Kwa Hawking. It is not a surprise that students at Oxford are clever, but it is astonishing that the quality of student-written pieces are so often seamlessly professional works. This is a play which focuses on mental health, queerness, and has an entirely POC cast, and hopefully this will be commonplace in the future.
The set for Death Grip looks like a modern art installation, in fact, it is very similar to Tracy Emin’s My Bed. Scattered around this set which resolves solely around a double-bed mattress is the debris of life: takeaway boxes, clothes, wine bottles, tissues. The set was so relaxed that before the play had started, audience members milled around out of their seats chatting to each other, laughing. This was a credit not only to the natural feeling of the set, but also to how natural the relationship between the only two actors, Adham Smart (Adam) and Selali Fiamanya (Jay) was. Like Emin’s artwork, the stage design shows the reality of a depressive episode and it is shockingly intimate and frank. Exactly what is needed in an accurate portrayal of depression that does not seek to glamorize the subject.
Death Grip is undoubtedly refreshing, and uncomfortable, and is exactly what needs to be seen
This play also offered the uglier aspects of mental health, that are often ignored or sensationalised. The play opens with the under-cover grunts of sex, and sex pervades the play both humorously and uncomfortably. Adam wants to be choked during sex, he seems fairly obsessed with it, and Jay continually refutes this saying that he does not want to do this because he loves Adam. However, Adam clearly wants someone to take control of him, if he cannot take control of himself, and believes that if Jay really loved him he would do it. He does not have to be pleasant or saintly. His interactions with Jay are awkward and bitter, and painful. But, this is also admirable on behalf of Kwa Hawking’s writing. Do you need to be saintly to be depressed? Do you need to show unconditional gratitude? Do you need to be nice, or loving? No, you can be a real person instead. This is undoubtedly refreshing, and uncomfortable, and is exactly what needs to be seen.
Adam needs just ‘one good sleep, one good fuck’ to ‘snap’ him out of it. This is what he thinks he needs. This is what he is trying to do. But Death Grip offers no miracles, and no cures for mental health issues. This is what needs to be celebrated most about this play. Instead, it shows that gradual progress in depression should be congratulated. When Adam makes the bed at the end of the play, Jay is absolutely thrilled. Death Grip does not really offer a complete ending: it doesn’t end in a cure or suicide, which seems to be the norm for plays about mental health issues. Instead, it is bracingly brave, and offers a revitalising take on depression and relationships.