Ruby Wax – How to be Human

Last night (7th November), I went to the Lyric Theatre to see Ruby Wax, as part of her How to be Human Tour. I’ve never seen Ruby live and my knowledge of her only extends to her being a very small but loud American woman who is known for her 25 plus year career as a stand up comic and writer for several of her own comedy shows, as well as editing Absolutely Fabulous. I confess I have never read any of her books, despite being very interested in the research and treatment of Mental Health conditions such as Depression and Anxiety. Ruby’s award-winning work campaigning for mental health charities as well as her own frank experiences of her personal struggles, has meant she has been on my radar for awhile. So when the chance came for tickets at one of my local Theatre’s, I took it.

I entered the Theatre, not knowing what to expect. Having not ready any of her books, including the book on which the Tour is based, I had no preconceptions. The only thing I gathered, was that it would be funny, and very honest. So when the stage lights went up and Ruby appeared on stage, all bets were off. This would be interesting.

After an initial ‘warm up’ to get the audience chucking and on her side, Wax explained the journey that had lead her to this tour. With a throwaway joke that ‘everyone is mentally ill these days’ following her work and several books on the subject, she noted that she realised she had to move in a new direction, and this would be to explore the ideas behind what makes us human. This would be done firstly with the guidance of her research and notes on the human make up and development from Evolution through to modern day, focusing on Thoughts, emotions, the body, compassion, forgiveness, sex and relationships. Then, she noted, she would be introducing a Monk and a Neuroscientist for their input.

Oh, and they couldn’t afford the projection of handy visual images on a screen, which she’d planned. So she’d point the ‘clicker’ at the screen for effect only. Whether this was a fault on the night at this particular venue, and not actually a budget issue, we’ll never know. Yet the audience just laughed and joined in on the joke.

What proceeded was a rather bizarre mix of a lecture/seminar style presentation of her findings, with facts and figures that she noted playfully, may or may not be true. For someone who lives to learn and for factual information, this proved rather difficult and often distracting.  This was interjected with personal asides and stories about her own relation to topics such as our thoughts, emotions and relationships. Many of these were fascinating but I struggled to keep up and link together her points.

Some interesting facts came up, if they are true facts. Wax noted that once, billions of years ago, we were all the same colour, and it was simply the direction in which our ancestors chose to walk which resulted in the way we look today. If true, fascinating. Although a call by Wax, for any bigots disappointed by this, particularly Ku Klux Klan members, to stand up, felt a little uncomfortable. Is this just an example of her oddball, often satirical humour?

Also, Wax’s visual description of the way the brain is formatted, to allow for information to pass through, with a hilarious metaphor of a Maserati pushing down on a toy tractor, to allow us to make choices that are often contradictory. To the rather beautiful visual description of thoughts being processed like bees in a hive, worker bees working in different areas of the brain to make us make choices, such as to buy a particular coffee, from activity in the sensory area of the brain to conjure physical images, to those manufacturing the smell of coffee in the smell area of the brain, to the more physical movement bees that makes us walk to the nearest coffee shop.

Wax’s passion and enthusiasm often made up for periods of audience confusion or lack of clarity on points linking together. After all, if you want a stream lined lecture on psychology, you’d go elsewhere. That, was not what Wax was doing.

The first act of her show was funny, at times touching, as she spoke of her own bouts of depression, and asked the audience to turn to the person either side of them and take a good look, and smile. ‘Because they might look normal on the outside, but underneath that, they’re just as much of a f**k up as you are.’ Brutal but true.

After the interval Wax returned with Buddhist Monk, Gelong Thubten. The neuroscientist unfortunately was too ill to take part. This did disappoint slightly as the show then seemed rather one sided, although Wax did try to speak for the empty seat and gave her solo guest more than a challenge.

This half of the show was more serious and I felt the audience turn a little. Thubten talked of his experience of being a monk for over 25 years, what lead him to that place and how he saw the modern world. He made some particularly valid points about finding happiness and peace in ourselves, rather than searching outside for it and constantly looking to others and external sources to make us happy. As Ruby agreed, we are yet to figure out what makes us happy and we’re hard wired to think that being busy means we’re happy.

Thubten also noted that the way we view ourselves is changing, that we now constantly question who we are and what we like, as we are endlessly seeking approval from other people via social media, likes and thumbs up or down are taking control over the way we live our lives and present ourselves to the world.  I found this part of the show, far more interesting, although the comedy aspect seemed to drain away. The discussion even getting quite heated at times, as Wax interrupted Thubten mid flow.

The show ended with Wax doing an odd dance with a ribbon streamer, perhaps a homage to her dashed desire to be a cheerleader in high school, which she performed for a few minutes before she and the monk bowed and then left the stage.

I can honestly say it was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life, but I enjoyed it, I learnt a lot. I listened and I laughed too. Wax has a strange kind of magnetic power that draws you in. I felt this in person when I met her in the foyer and she signed my new copy of How to be Human.

If you get a chance, it’s worth seeing this tour, just for the pure experience. There’s nothing else out there like it, I guarantee you!

Plus, her observation that we all need a monk to travel with us, was more than accurate. A calming, insightful influence would go a long way in my life!