Set in 1854 in the criminal wing of Bethlem Hospital for the Insane and being about the birth of psychotherapy, you would be forgiven for assuming this play will be heavy going. It is of course a play with gravitas, but writer director Mark Wilson handles this tricky subject matter with subtlety and wisdom, and thankfully at no point is anything gratuitous.
A creative and compelling production
This is about the changing ideas of the treatment of the mentally ill: it shows the struggle of those advocating ‘traditional’ methods dating back hundreds of years which include restraints, beatings and torture; with those exploring talking and listening to patients, particularly the importance of childhood experiences and the curative value in articulating them. Mark writes: 'it is a play about the universal and, indeed, timeless need to be heard.'
Fascinatingly, the characters of the two doctors and one of the patients (Richard Dadd) actually existed, and, based on the writer’s research, the play tells their stories of this time, which gives the piece added depth and meaning. On one side we see Doctor George Haydon, who is exploring listening to his patients; on the other we have Nurse Janet Grey, who advocates traditional methods with passionate conviction. It is an interesting device to have the traditionally ‘softer’ female character in favour of what we see with modern eyes as barbaric; stating her case with such belief that the audience can see she does actually come from a place of caring. Hazel Starns gives a believable and sympathetic performance as the nurse which could otherwise have been two dimensional and easy to hate. In the middle of the two, is Doctor Charles Hood: more political in nature, reporting to the Government appointed ‘Commission for Lunacy’. He too explores talking and helped bring about a radical transformation in the treatment of the mentally ill long after the events of this play have taken place.
Being in the round with no set gives this production immediacy and intimacy: the audience experiences everything very closely. The piece has a stylised quality at the beginning, which becomes a conversation between the two doctors in the first act with flashbacks to other events that they refer to as they talk. There is a quiet restraint over most of the characters which given the subject matter makes sense. Doctor Haydon (James Macauley) gives a multilayered performance, showing his deep caring for his patients and his quandary over whether talking is beneficial, his doubt in his methods and himself. His self-conviction contrasting with vulnerability and uncertainty is excellently portrayed. Doctor Charles Hood (Matteo Bagaini) shows an outward youthful confidence of one who believes he is right, and carries authority really well.
The two patients we see are painter Richard Dadd (Bill Griffiths) and poet Emily Clayton (Janice Jones). There is a beautiful scene in the second half where they talk to each other and she helps him uncover a traumatic event in his childhood which has contributed to his mental ill health, where the writing is so lyrical and rich it is almost poetry. One of the therapeutic tennets of now is shown in the line: “I sometimes wonder if the greatest skill us knowing when to say nothing at all”, and when they question Emily about how Richard had a breakthrough, she states simply: “I walked beside him”. Bill Griffiths quite simply gives a tour de force performance as the painter: a lost soul trying to regain his sense of self and sense of reality; running the whole gamut of emotions: completely convincing and captivating.
An important piece, sensitively written and directed, deftly delivered: a creative and compelling production.