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Brighton Year-Round 2020


New Venture Theatre, Brighton

Genre: Drama, Historical, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: New Venture Theatre Studio


Low Down

Written and directed by Mark Wilson, Lighting Design and Rigging’s by Strat Mastoris and Carol Croft (operators Alex Epps, Tamsin Mastoris). Sound Design and operation’s by Ian Black and Erica Fletcher. Costume Design’s by Lindsay Midali, Jackie Jones, Richi Blennerhassett. Stage Management and Props are by Trisha Bayliss and Carol Croft. Ulrike Schilling is Movement Coach. Till February 22nd.


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.