This production promises a lot and has benefited from much anticipation and publicity; happily, it actually does meet expectations. As one satisfied audience member exclaimed at curtain call, ‘It’s crazy theatre, I have never seen anything like it before!’ This is an accurate summation. This piece’s main drawcard is that you witness two plays simultaneously, which are disparate in places then complementary, jarring then entwined, discomforting then joyful.
And yes, they have almost eradicated schizophrenia in Western Lapland which is in the far north-west of Finland where they have made a breakthrough over the past 20 years in preventing the escalation of early onset psychosis into schizophrenia. The therapy is called ‘Open Dialogue’ which involves thorough verbal interaction between patient, loved ones and their therapist with limited use of medication. The play does not attempt in anyway to demonstrate this therapy but uses it as a background to what begins as two separate narratives that then converge into one at the production’s conclusion.
David Woods and Jon Haynes are Ridiculusmus, an outfit that originated straight from their time at the Poor School, a high profile drama school in London. There has always been an element of humour in their work over the years since 1992, as they explain, but they also seek a higher purpose of exploring questions to the more difficult facets of life such as mental illness in this instance.
The play poses questions like: are we all capable of finding ourselves in the grip, at one time or another, of a mental illness? How do our loved ones cope? Is medication the only way out? What can we learn from people who are burdened with a psychosis? Ridiculusmus wants to “de-stigmatise and normalise psychosis and ultimately engage the audience in a quiet revolution in social interaction.”
The audience sits in traverse and in the middle the playing space divided by a wall with windows covered by net curtains plus a door, centre, through which the actors cross over into each of the two plays at different times. It is a bit unnerving listening to the play on your side and also hearing the actors on the other side acting out the other play. The audience opposite laughed a lot on opening night and you feared you were missing out and that you were on the wrong side. You hear dialogue echoed every now and then, and lines from both sides of the wall would overlap. This gives a sense of what auditory hallucination could be like and it was quite discomforting.
After 45 minutes, and an interval, we then were obliged to swap sides. We got a re-run of each play and you realize what you have missed but also hearing a repeat of what you already have witnessed prior to interval. It sounds a bit confusing and contrived and the experience is all this plus more. As the narratives of the two plays converge and the characters on each side begin speaking to each other there is a sort of catharsis. The play ends with music and dancing; perhaps to illustrate more chaos within one’s head, the expression of elation or the extremes of human emotion.
Nicola Gunn is a superb ‘mother’ dealing with her kids whilst dealing with her depression and episodes. Her eldest son (Jon Haynes) presents an intense character, suffering from many things: delusions of grandeur, anal retentiveness, anxiety, apathy or was it boredom? His character’s quips were amusing and well delivered by Haynes. His earnest and machine-like pattern of speech evokes a patient experiencing psychotic tendencies. David Woods is animated as the doctor caring for Haynes’ character but trying to manage his own ailing state of mental health at the same time. Ben Grant is Gunn’s other son who is obsessed with many things and finds it difficult witnessing his mother’s declining mental health. Gunn’s character pauses a lot giving us a sense of her mind racing with all sorts of noise. At times it seemed the actors were waiting for their cue from the other side of the divide, but this wasn’t too much of a bother.
This play is something to witness and there is a lot to contemplate. Hats off to a company not afraid to explore the realm of mental illness with dignity, humour and insight.
Arts House, Meat Market, North Melbourne
Season from November 12-16