The banner proclaims, ‘Congratulations’ as it hangs from the ceiling above the unimaginable mess left by the previous afternoon's party in which inmates and staff seemingly ran amok. There’s no evidence of alcohol having been consumed, however. This is a mental institution. The current silence and absence of people is in stark contrast to how it must have been the day before and to what the room will witness on this special day.
It’s bizarre, quite extraordinary and mind-boggling with remarkable performances from all involved.
Medicine is the latest work from celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh and it takes the stage by storm at the Traverse theatre as part of the Edinburgh International Festival. Developed with the support of the National Theatre, London, it comes from the distinguished theatrical stable of Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland, NUI Galway and Culture Ireland.
Speaking of his play, Walsh has said that it’s about people trying to discover ‘why they are the way they are’ but also about ‘the absence of love — and our longing and great need for love’. It draws on revelations about the often shameful treatment of people in Ireland with mental health issues and their institutionalisation, although the same could probably be said for how they are dealt with in most countries. It’s also influenced by witnessing his mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and her life in a retirement home along with a short video of a man with catatonic schizophrenia.
The highly-acclaimed Domhnall Gleeson enters the room dressed in inmate’s pyjamas for what is to be John Kane’s annual assessment. In a performance that ranges through a gamut of emotions, he initially looks bewildered and then becomes angry and destructive, adding further disarray to Jamie Vartan’s fabulously shambolic set. Later he will capture the inner humanity of the man put away by his family as he recalls stories from the past and recites from the poetry he has written before a final rage against the world. Much of this forms part of a scripted play about his life that the ‘therapists’ will take him through. In fact they are actors, largely out of work, who dress up as entertainers for children’s parties.
Clare Barrett and Aoife Duffin play this pair, both named Mary, rather like an absurdist version of Laurel and Hardy with clearly no understanding of drama therapy. Barret forcefully plays the control freak who ruthlessly edits Kane’s story and interrogates him, while bossing the other Mary around. Kane is at the mercy of her, just as he has been of the system all his life. Then there are scenes when the actors forget all about him and indulge in their own fun and games, drawing on their musical theatre background to sing and dance. Sean Carpio takes position behind his drum kit for much of the play, providing a percussive background that at times feels like a commentary which then becomes the means of heightening the tensions and ragings that feature so largely. The frenzy of emotional extremes is bolstered by the lighting design of Adam Silverman, Helen Atkinson’s sound design,Teho Teardo’s compositions and the vast wardrobe from costume designer Joan O'Clery.
It’s bizarre, quite extraordinary and mind-boggling with remarkable performances from all involved. It leaves us perhaps like Kane, trying to make sense of it all. Walsh has his own final thoughts on it. “The characters in Medicine are tied to structure and rules and ways of living that have twisted them into dysfunctional isolated souls. But knitted through the play, I hope — is a call for understanding and listening — and with that — our responsibility to care properly for one another and particularly for those who are vulnerable.”