Talk

written & directed by Mark Wilson

Reviews

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.

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.

by Susanne Crosby - Published on Broadway Baby - Brighton

 

 

Mark Wilson’s Talk enjoys a fine pedigree. Originally a Radio 4 drama, it’s taken theatrical shape first in Canterbury, then the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s next scheduled in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Southwark’s old Bethlem mental asylum in the 1850s had already stood for 600 years, though it was soon to be pulled down – the Imperial War Museum now stands on its foundations. So what is once-famous artist Richard Dadd (1817-86, played by Bill Griffiths) doing in the criminal wing, alongside Janice Jones’ fellow-patient Emily Clayton? They shouldn’t mix. In fact they’re the two prime candidates for a talking cure, pioneered by James Macauley’s Dr George Haydon, presided over by young, ambitious Dr Charles Hood, played by Matteo Bagaini making his debut outside university. Like Dadd, these doctors did more or less what the play proclaims.

They’re up not just against a Government Commission for Lunacy, whose acceptance or denial of their proposals will determine the future of mental distress treatment. They’re also vigorously, stubbornly resisted by their apparent subordinates, Hazel Starns’ Matron Janet Grey, and Adam Kincaid’s Attendant Sam Fowles.

Written and directed by Mark Wilson, there’s no set but the Studio space is swept back for an in-the-round experience of visceral power. Actors – sat cheek-by-jowl on white wooden chairs next the audience – leap up as vividly costumed figures against a neutral ground offsetting their brilliance with a fluid dark. A bit like a period oil portrait. It’s swept by lighting and rigging by Strat Mastoris and Carol Croft. Sound design and operation’s by Ian Black and Erica Fletcher, usually inserting a still-point of music, like Pachelebel’s Canon in G or Chopin’s Nocturne Op 9/1. Quietly sumptuous costume design’s by Lindsay Midali, Jackie Jones, Richi Blennerhassett.

Between each of the three pairs there’s cross-tensions. Whereas the mostly silent Kincaid in his role as enforcer Fowles is a ferocious adjunct to Starns’ Matron Grey, Starns herself is both traditional restrainer and a querulous witness. She extols the virtue of restraint as pacifier, arguing that disturbance and bringing emotion up harms patients further. She’s unsympathetic but seems occasionally to prove her point. Starns is superb in adamantine pose, delivering chiselled damnation.

Her doubts are faintly echoed surprisingly by Bagaini’s Dr Hood, a very young ambitious man anxious for reform but perhaps even more anxious, Grey suggests – etching in acid – to make his reputation. Bagaini ably conveys Hood’s own vacillation, his two-steps-forward-one-sideways-one-back in a quietly impressive debut, furrowing his brow like a slightly failed liberal. Though senior to Macauley’s Haydon, he’s junior in progressive instinct but knows how to edge pragmatic enlightenment.

The clash between the doctors is modelled by Wilson with a thrilling understanding of just what was at stake, and what still is. Haydon’s journey isn’t just as a progressive fighting and compromising, with dangers of disaster. Wilson shows how he learns from his patients, and from Clayton in particular, almost a doctor herself, realizes the value of silence, of active listening. Macauley’s performance conveys what it’s like to be pulled four ways: to Grey, to Hood, to the patients, to his own occasionally flawed – or say unformed – instinct. Macauley radiates a man who feels the world’s half in darkness, but himself being led, humbly, to the light.

They key performances though are rightly the two patients. The most celebrated of Dadd’s paintings came from after he was committed in 1843 at twenty-six for killing his father in a fit of paranoia, after a gruelling trip to southern Syria. Three siblings suffered similarly; his treatment was relatively enlightened. Most of his masterworks were painted during his lifelong incarceration. One is Contradiction: Oberon and Titania from the drama’s period of the 1850s, another The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855-64). Close-up hallucigenic, fantastically detailed they parallel the Pre-Raphaelites, anticipate symbolism and surrealism, crossed with a tiny bit of Breughel – though wholly self-generated. Dadd’s like Millais on acid.

Griffiths sporting a goatee manages to convey initial stiffness and almost frightening despair in his towering frame with a mix of nobility and sudden hurt. He modulates his voice between high terror and sotto-voce eloquence. He’s riveting, especially when groping eloquently towards his own light, he bounces off Macauley and most of all, Clayton. He gives a small masterclass in poise and a man awkward in his own body. His final breakibng down into release is intensely moving.

As is Jones, who’s equally compelling as Clayton. At first robotically repeating her now ex-husband’s nostrum about her writing poetry as ‘disturbing the order of the house’ we discover she’s been incarcerated for a different reason. As she expresses it to Macauley. ‘Men are incarcerated for being mad. Women for finding they have a mind of their own.’ Clayton’s slow rise to radiant lucidity is marked on Jones’ face, as she raises it to a brief stunning eloquence, fitfully revisited when comforting Dadd.

In their great but gentle encounter Dadd and Clayton interrogate memory and language with probing devastation. For Dadd it’s about loss, but how can you paint that? Memory is the recovery of knowing loss, language the means to open it into self-realisation; ultimately in Dadd’s case learning to live with your actions and understanding why you’re here. Clayton suggests ‘Hell must be a heart filled with unheard stories.’ It becomes her and the play’s signature moment.

Revelations – brutally cut short by the intervention of Grey and Fowles despite Haydon’s protests – effect a peripeteia. Dadd has gained full consciousness. But Clayton’s now confined to solitude: she’s threatened with encroaching numbness and distrait inarticulacy. In a touching final meeting she flickers back from her ritual opening gambit, her husband’s nasty nostrum about poetry disturbing the order of a house, and into superb eloquence, whilst Dadd’s promised a new liberal regime at the just-opened Broadmoor.

It’s a drama of cauterised optimism, bleak gestures to futurity. As a study in groping towards enlightened medical practice, with all the conflicts between doctor and doctor, their conservative juniors and seniors and the actual talking with patients who educate them, Wilson and his team triumph in a whisper, and a restraining cry.

by Simon Jenner
Published in Fringe Review - 20 February 2020

 

The year is 1854 and within the walls of the criminal wing of Bethlem Hospital for the Insane a bitter struggle is playing out. Talk, written and directed by Mark Wilson, was originally conceived as a radio play for BBC Radio 4 and is reimagined here for the New Venture Theatre. It charts the detailed history – the players, the means and the motives – behind the foundation of the psychotherapy movement.

Two young doctors, George Haydon (James Macauley) and Charles Hood (Matteo Bagaini), through interactions with their patients, have come to have serious doubts about the state of contemporary treatments at the hospital and throughout the country. Are the inhabitants of Bethlem to be considered patients or inmates? Is their confinement rehabilitative or punitive? The doctors’ case becomes one of modernity versus traditionalism and it looks to restore to their patients what has been denied to them for too long.

At its heart, Talk is a story about stories. In a setting where straps and buckles are seen not as callous, necessary evils but rather as a kindness it is clear that the humanity of Bethlem’s patients has been stripped away. The emotional neglect of characters such as Emily Clayton (Janice Jones) and Richard Dadd (Bill Griffiths) has lead to the suppression of self and memory, sometimes leading to violent and unmitigable outbursts or solemn, introverted retreats. That is until the prospect of change is brought to the fore by the introduction of a somewhat rogue and radical element into the hospital; empathy. “You talk to me and bring me hope”, Emily Clayton cries as this idea of talking and listening to patients, seen as perhaps a more abstract treatment in the face of the hard-line ‘science’ so ingrained in Bethlem’s staff, is here put to great effect; restoring the humanity to those who for so long have been denied compassion, culture and care. Wilson’s play cleverly gifts the most tender and profound utterances to those which society so often underserves and underestimates. It shows what is possible when emotions, sometimes alien and terrifying in their newness, are not allowed to become externalised and anthropomorphised, manifesting and all-conquering, but are spoken of and about for the sake of understanding and growing.

Wilson evidently had a clear vision for his play and his direction serves it masterfully. The stage is configured in-the-round with the audience facing inwards, peering down from raked seats as if on a boxing ring, an old operating theatre, a petri dish. The lack of set and sparseness of the space underscore this pervasive, ever-present threat of nothingness; the space lacks everything when it lacks bodies and interaction.

Throughout the play scenes ebb and flow seamlessly with sense and action bleeding from one setting to the next. Characters enter and exit the playing space like fragments of memories, no cast member allowing the momentum to slip. Once exited they sit in the stalls, mute but observative, whilst audience members around them try their hardest to ignore their presence, to deny their existence. Janice Jones gives a stunning performance as patient Emily Clayton, her frustration and grief fizz and simmer until finally allowed to boil over once she finds herself heard. Likewise Bill Griffiths is a brooding Richard Dadd, unresponsive and miserly until the root of his trauma is discovered through discussion and an unseen tenderness is at last allowed to break the topsoil.

Grounded in a pivotal moment within the history of medicine Talk rehumanises and gives life to those at the centre of years of beleaguered psychiatric discussion and debate. The writing does not allow itself to rage or sermonise. In earnestly telling its story it opens itself up to the audience and focuses attention on areas in life – trauma, loss, loneliness – where a degree of suffering can perhaps be lifted, even just slightly, if we feel we can talk.

by Ethan Taylor
Published in Brighton Source - 20 February 2020