Brighton Fringe 2014
Are you reading this review?
That sounds like a stupid question, but really – are you reading this review? Can you be completely sure you’re not dreaming that you’re reading this review? Or having an hallucination that you’re reading this review? Just as I can’t be completely sure that I’m writing these words – I may be dreaming that I’m writing them – or I may be mentally disturbed and having the delusion that I’m writing a review …
‘A Still Life’ is a play about reality. Or what we perceive as reality. A woman wakes up on a settee in a hospital room, with no idea who she is or how she got there. Her memory is a blank slate. It seems that she’s some kind of patient, but the people who come in through the door behave in ways that are completely crazy. So are these people real? – in which case it’s a madhouse. Or are they hallucinations? – in which case the woman herself is delusional.
She has no sure way of knowing. She has only her mind to assess the situation with, and her mind may well be damaged. But we as audience have no way of knowing either – we see what the director chooses to show us, and we don’t know whether we’re being shown her (inner) reality or our (external) reality.
This way madness lies … but luckily ‘A Still Life’ is done as a brilliantly funny farce, which kept us gripped through a whole hour of mind-bending twists and turns of psychology and metaphysics. The show made my head spin, but it didn’t give me a headache – I was too busy laughing.
The clinic – for it seems the room is in a clinic – is run by Doctor Proctor. He’s as mad as ten Hatters, obsessed with his status as a medical pioneer – the man who defined ‘Proctor’s Syndrome’ and developed ‘Proctor’s Twelve Step Programme’. Ian Angus Wilkie, who must be in his fifties, played him completely manic; white coat unbuttoned, heavy spectacles glittering in the stage lights and his hair increasingly awry as he browbeats his patient, forcing her to accept his diagnosis that she’s delusional. He’s also burning with hatred (or envy) for Dr Tourette, (who of course is a damn sight more famous) and his Syndrome.
He has a perfect counterpart in Cardigan, who arrives to hero-worship Dr Proctor and work as an intern at the Clinic. He’s younger than the Doctor, with dark hair slicked back over his ears and he’s dressed in russet corduroy trousers and a little knitted top that his mother must have made for him. Michael Armstrong gave the character the social awkwardness and intensity that often defines the geek. A lack of any conception of personal space, too. He’s the kind of man who puts the ‘Eek!’ into ‘geek’.
These two ought to be enough for any mental patient to deal with; but drifting in and out of the room is – Serenity. Floaty floral dress over black leggings, and with long brown hair tumbling over her shoulders, Rachel Cohen made her a walking manifestation of New Age philosophy – body and arms twisting sinuously as if she’s a tree, while quoting from Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ in a ecstatic voice.
In fact it was Serenity who alerted us to the Postmodern nature of this show – right at the start she’d come down through the audience to climb on stage and introduce herself directly, and then she finished with – "I’ll be seeing you later – or rather; you’ll be seeing me later". There was no ‘fourth wall’ in this production.
The patient herself is Jude. She’s in pale blue pyjamas, with blonde hair tied back in a ponytail – and she’s fairly heavily pregnant. Rebecca Probyn played her initially as frightened and bewildered, and then increasingly assertive and argumentative when faced with the crazy obsessions of the Doctor and his staff. The only one who seemed to have any grip on reality was Ford, the hospital Orderly. Maybe that’s because his character is brought to life by Christophe Philipps, who directed the production. He wrote the play, too – so at least one of them understands what’s going on.
The Clinic staff are all convinced that Jude is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – that she’s suffered some trauma and she can’t remember anything because – "your subconscious mind has become detached from your conscious mind. Every morning when you awake you are like a clean slate". Doctor Proctor prescribes another traumatic shock as a remedy. His idea of a traumatic shock is clearly insane – and quite unethical, Hippocrates would have a fit! – but he’s the doctor.
He quotes Descartes to Jude – "The only thing we can rely on absolutely, is our mind. Everything else is, or could be, a construct of our mind, completely illusory. It’s the only thing we can rely on absolutely" But Jude disagrees – after all, Descartes was a 17th century Classical philosopher, like Newton, while she herself is a 20th century woman, the century of Einstein‘s Relativity. "If all we can trust is our thoughts – and we can’t rely on them – then can we ever think in absolutes?"
Proctor’s clearly driven by his own ego and sense of power, as he shouts her down – "Rubbish! Some thoughts are absolute. We must be able to rely on some things – even if it’s only to have faith that others know what is best for us – for you"
Others know what is best for us. How often we’ve heard that argument from people in positions of power …
There were probably too many repetitions of the basic ideas, and the play could do with some additional judicious trimming – it seems that it’s already been shortened from Christophe Philipps’ original text. Overall, though, the twists of logic and philosophy, and the underlying violence of Dr Proctor’s ego, kept the dialogue crackling. It felt like a Tom Stoppard play re-written by Joe Orton. Or maybe the other way round.
Finally it’s Ford the Orderly who comes up with an explanation of Jude’s condition that tied all the threads together. It occurred to me that maybe the Orderly was the Doctor all along. Calm at last, Jude settled back to sleep on the settee, seemingly well on the way to recovery.
Cured? … Perhaps. The stage at the close looked uncannily like the stage at the opening. Would Jude wake up tomorrow and the whole process begin again? Maybe this is how every day unfolds for her – starting with a clean slate …