Bedlam @ Globe Theatre, London

cast list
Jason Baughan, Patrick Brennan, Daon Broni, Phil Cheadle, Sam Crane, Sophie Duval, Sean Kearns, James Lailey, Danny Lee Winter, Rose Leslie, Kevork Malikyan, Barbara Marten, Ella Smith, Lorna Stuart, Joseph Timms, Finty Williams, Jade Williams.

directed by
Jessica Swale
To anyone of sound mind and judgement, calling Bedlam a play about madness would be like calling Lear a play about a familial tiff, or The Madness of George III about Nigel Hawthornes cotton chemise, or Blanche Dubois a motorist; Hedda Gabler a pen pal.

This play uses the pretext of confinement to bring a series of mannered love stories to the South Bank, dressed in bright costumes and bawdy glamour, returning a sense of the Globes past as an open air playhouse of ill-repute, and as something to be condemned by the Puritans it is a fun enough evening, but as an investigation of madness it is bafflingly inept.

Set in the Bedlam hospital of Bishopsgate, designed by Robert Hooke in the 17th century, this ensemble piece follows the stories of those associated with the institution.
Jason Baugham as Dr Carew delivers a robust comic turn, his son played by an innervated Joseph Timms, the comic highlight the buxom gin-swilling Phyllis played with sharp comic timing by Ella Smith who reminds us why she deservingly won the Critics Circle award for best newcomer two years ago.

They ably navigate the carnivalesque scenes that make up the bulk of the play, human swarms of gleeful drunkenness and inebriated squalor, think Boitard and Laroon, Hogarth without the prurience, Paul Sandbys 12 Sketches guest-edited by Vice. Farcical quacks fling leeches, bodies are manhandled, crotches are thrusted and skirts fly heavenward as God is denounced with well-constructed oaths. Much to the audiences delight the fourth wall is broken with regular effect, gin is sprayed from a drunken mouth over the front row, a fight breaks out amongst the yardlings, who are regularly chastised in asides, their fault for “being in the front row”, for only paying a fiver.

These boisterous scenes are allied by the attention paid to the detail of the costumes. Vivacious pastel shades, colour-matched with the bright marble trompe-l’il of the stages Doric columns, work to create an exaggerated pop authenticity, like airy Stuart rave wear. This aesthetic resounds around the bouncy crowd scenes and physical theatre to create a cogent, lively and often elegant spectacle. The music that accompanies them – reworkings of English folk songs such as A Maid in Bedlam, a banjo standing in for a lute – is solidly written and heartily sung throughout, the lament by Sean Kearns as Richard, the Magwitch-like brute of a sex offender, a particular highlight.

And while this is a play that purports to challenge our preconceptions about madness through its bright historical lense, it does nothing of the sort. Despite doing-for one character by the plays close, drunkenness seems less a scourge than a means of fun – for all the play does to give an earthy dignity to sozzled indignity, the connection with madness is underdone. Similarly vague are the inmates subjectivities, their stories and contexts given a line or two, improbably neat resolutions to their unexplored conditions. In a similarly reductive vein Tom piously reminds us that mad people are people too a sentiment that is as insulting to the quarter of British adults who experience mental disorder and their families, as it is grindingly idiotic.

Seeing that this is the first ever play at the Globe, in either its old or new incarnations, to be written by a known woman dramatist, it is fitting (if belated) that women come off better understood. The medical treatment of womens bodies is neatly linked to beauty and femininity, and the insight that the treatment of madness has much to do with the control of unruly womanhood, as the likes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman through to Eherenreich have so systematically exposed, is perhaps the plays only political score.

It is telling that Nell Leyshons script was researched in the company of medical professionals at the modern Bethlehem hospital. The way in which a transition from archaic to modern medicine is set up and handled, is so benign and uncomplicated that it could have come from a flyer she absent-mindedly picked up on the ward. The unproblematic figure of Dr Maynard, played as a clear-thinking moderniser by Phil Cheadle, struts his enlightened changes, his safe hands delivering us into the dawn of surveillance and incarceration as if it were simply liberation into a new professional era. That the confinement of the mentally disordered is again in vogue today, not just in Russia and China, but in the UK where successive decades of community-focused care are being reversed in an atmosphere of tabloid hysteria and the strengthening of pharmacological interests, seems to leave this play untroubled.

You do not have to be an avowed fan of the anti-psychiatric dramatists of the 1970s to feel underchanged by this simplistic account. In Ivanov, Chekhov has his protagonists madness explained by a number of players, each with their own perspective. In recognising madness as a site of various competing meanings, teasing out the multiplicity of discourses that make up a construction of madness, the medico-biological account becomes one of many. Chekhov allowed for symbolic possibility, for resistance, for humanity. We dont expect Bedlam to be Chekhov, but we expect more from our plays than than medical headline as history, than simple trust and docility, no matter how nice the costumes.

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