Hysteria @ Great Hall, St Barts, London

cast list
Evelyn Klein
Janaina Leite
Juliana Sanchez
Mara Helieno
Sara Antunes

directed by
Luiz Fernando Marques
Your experience of this production by Grupo XIX de Teatro will depend very much on whether you are male or female.

This Brazil-based company specialise in documenting the lives of ‘ordinary people in former centuries’ and their production, Hysteria, is about life in a 19th century women’s mental institution. As it portrays a divided world, so the audience are divided, the men made to sit separately on one side of the room while the women sit on benches and on the floor amongst the inmates.

Though staged under the umbrella of BITE, the Barbican’s programme of international theatre, the production takes place not in that great concrete box of an arts centre but in the Great Hall of St Barts. Even before the production properly begins you find yourself awed, entering the hospital’s north wing via the grand Hogarth Staircase, home to two of the painter’s works, The Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda. It is here that the audience is split, the men filing in first as the women are made to wait. Then a nurse appears at the top of the staircase, clad all in white; she begins to bark orders, to wave the women into the hall. There we find a semi circle of benches on which to sit, though there are not enough for everyone so many have to sit on the floor.

This is where I ended up, on the floor. And, sitting there cross-legged on the worn wood, being told what to do and where to sit, I felt transported back to school, to the assembly hall I felt appropriately small.

Amongst us were four women in lacy skirts and simple blouses, the inmates. They moved among the audience, talking to them, lovingly describing their husbands who will surely be coming for them soon or begging that we read their small, crumbled slips of paper, because, as women, they cannot read it for themselves, they have never been taught how. These women were sometimes lucid, at times girlish and conspiratorial, but occasionally they would bend their heads, arch their backs and howl in despair and in torment.

Often, while the audience’s gaze was directed at one of the performers, small intimate moments were occurring elsewhere in the room: whispered questions, please for secrecy, the smoothing of hair. The women repeatedly asked questions of the audience, their fellow inmates, curious, hungry for understanding: how old are you? Do you have a husband? And, to one woman: are you an onanist?

At one point half the (female) audience was dragged to their feet and led in a manic twirling dance around the hall, it was an exhilarating, powerful moment. After the dance was over, the mood of elation shifted suddenly, darkened. There were further howls of desperation and writhing on the floor. The nurse berated her charges, us included: See, see what happens when you break the rules. Because, as the piece makes clear, many of the women in a place such as this would have been incarcerated for breaking the rules, for transgressing the limits society had placed on them, for being too overtly sexual, too wilful, for daring to step outside the narrow box of acceptable female behaviour. Their hysteria was blamed on their deceitful wombs; they were slaves to the flesh, dominated by the uterus.

Even the figure of the nurse, who is initially something of a woman apart, striding around the room, always waiting for an unseen but revered (and, of course, male) doctor, is revealed to be just as trapped, just as limited, as those in her care. The women steal her diary and expose her thoughts, her fears. You are just like us, they hiss, triumphant.

Though the production succeeds in conveying all this, the performers’ thickly accented deliveries do prove problematic and there is often a lack of coherence and clarity. There was also a fair bit of generic ‘mad’ acting: shrieking and writhing on the floor, women with wild hair mumbling about making themselves pretty for Jesus. None of this did the production any favours, but despite it all, the piece had a power, it cast a certain spell.

No related posts found...