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Sam Crane (Laurence) and Finty Williams (Gardenia) in Bedlam at Shakespeare's Globe

photo by Keith Pattison


by Nell Leyshon


Directed by Jessica Swale


Designed by Soutra Gilmour

Music composed by Olly Fox


Shakespeare’s Globe


9 sept - 1 Oct 2010





A review by Mags Gaisford for EXTRA! EXTRA!


It takes a particular sensibility to convey the situations of those diagnosed with mental illness with sensitivity and respect. Bedlam is an extensively researched exploration of the dilemmas facing those in charge of the diagnosis and treatment of the mentally ill, a subject steeped in historical controversy. It is also a theatrical marvel.

Nell Leyshon, in an article for The Guardian, recounts conversations with patients of Bethlem hospital in which they granted wholehearted permission for her to use humour in her new play. Discussing the obligation to learn ‘acceptable behaviour’ as a condition of being allowed out, one patient described himself as a ‘highly trained circus animal.’

Leyshon’s keen not to repeat that most cruel aspect of asylum practice: ‘visiting days’, on which the mad were exploited for entertainment. A fine balance must be struck, then, for Bedlam cannot deny its own status as a play, and not a thesis.

As viewers, we check ourselves - do we come with the mentality of car–crash gapers? This discomfort is crucial. Our fascination seems sinister because we can’t fulfil it; we literally can’t get our heads around madness. We are teasingly given glimpses into the patients’ psychological states, only to be denied access, whether by misguided authorities or biological fact. Their heart–rending ballad of lost love is abruptly screamed into silence by a guard. Forbidden from identifying, then, our interest feels voyeuristic. The play’s acute self consciousness explores the famously problematic relationship between art and madness on many levels.

It’s mid – 18th century London. Gin is in vogue, psychiatry is unheard of. We witness the clashing of minds as Bedlam’s Dr Carew (Jason Baughan), your old – school woman-hating, leech and laxative-prescribing arch-villain is challenged by the enlightened views of Dr Maynard (Phil Cheadle), who ‘stumbles through the alleys of the mad mind’ with rather more humility and empathy. As the ethos of containment and humiliation gives way gradually to ideas of individual analysis with an emphasis on recovery, so the style of the play changes, from mesmeric scenes of babbling chaos to a focusing on individual stories. There is a clever transitional scene where Maynard’s presentation of his new approach of looking at the causes of pathologies is interspersed with Tom O’Bedlam’s (James Lailey) autobiographical monologue. Predictably, many of these causes are social and, sadly, timeless: poverty, neglect, trauma, childbirth. Insanity is often (but not, of course, always) the domain of the powerless.

As one of society’s most vulnerable figures, the mad woman is interesting in her ability to reflect the people around her. (This seems the perfect subject matter for what is, startlingly, the first ever production at The Globe by a female playwright.) May Garnett, the country girl whose man, Billy, has run off to sea, has a magnetism that invites the simultaneous fear and desire of every type of man. In a witty twist, Billy himself, when spied in his feminine disguise, experiences the hypocritical reactions May inspires:  ‘lock her away!’/ ‘can I touch her?’

Lawrence (Sam Crane), the perfumed, cowardly nonce, is a twofold villain, as both a vain misogynist and a talentless artist. He is undeniably funny, mincing in his grotto, uttering every phrase as if it is his first vocal experiment. But his is the worst possible abuse of the diagnosis of insanity, and it’s chilling to think that this nincompoop has the power to wrongfully incarcerate a woman. As an artist, he falls into the traps Leyshon avoids - taunting Bedlam’s patients when he’s not indulging in his own pseudo-melancholy. There’s a wonderful scene where he’s reduced to envious silence by May’s unchecked, rambling imagination, which shows up his own constipated verse.

Both Olly Fox’s music and Glynn MacDonald’s choreography are an absolute treat, providing stylish accompaniment to the atmospheric roller coaster of the production. Perhaps the most memorable of many brilliant moments in the stage direction sees Nancy, the religious zealot, descending from the rafters with a pork chop and a prayer. 

There are countless touching moments that hit raw, complex notes of surreal humour and infuriating injustice. There is no tidy moral here, but an invitation to think about thorny issues: of the audacity of diagnosis, of the maddening voicelessness of those certified insane; of the tragic irreversibility of a loved one losing their mind. It avoids many traps by tackling them head–on. The parallels between madness and art as places to confront the extremities of human experience are not missed. As the only models of true ‘sanity,’ Maynard and Carew’s wife, Annabel, lacks charisma and personality. Despite the relief of their attempts to meet others on equal terms, they just won’t make good theatre. Their valiant struggle, though, is crucial in the avoidance of another trap - that of the 1960’s anti–psychiatry argument that society itself is mad. The mad woman is not indulgently romanticised or stereotyped in any way. Men are as much involved in scenes of hysteria as women.

The description of the ‘highly trained circus animal’ is a poignant, imaginative analogy, and you can feel its influence in here somewhere. There is clearly a sensitive appreciation of the surreal lyricism that can result from a mind on over–drive, and the play is peppered with superb lines suggesting an almost Nabokovian love of language. You must see it.

Trust me, for just like the doctor’s, ‘my mind is fastly tightened within my bone dome.’



Members of the Company in Bedlam at Shakespeare's Globe

photo by Keith Pattison


Box Office: 0207 902 1400

£5 - £35

Shakespeare’s Globe
21 New Globe Walk





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