I saw this fascinating play recently at the Battersea Arts Centre

The production was simultaneously challenging, perplexing, moving and utterly absorbing. The piece was inspired by a radical treatment – dialogically based, inspired by the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin – for schizophrenia that has seemingly virtually eradicated the condition in Western Lapland.

The play concerns four characters, a mother, her two sons, and a doctor/psychiatrist. All compete to speak and to be heard, all demanding our attention. It is never absolutely clear who is mentally ill within the cacophony of words and dialogue, but that may well be the writers’ intention. There is also an intriguing sense of something relatable about any ‘craziness’ witnessed. The resulting polyphony – even chaos – usefully reminds us that we are actually observing life as we probably witness it everyday, where we cannot be sure what is real, what is unreal, what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour and thinking, or not, including that which we ourselves act out in our daily lives. Definitions of mental health are at best fluid and inconsistent, and perhaps we all at times spend time at either side of the shady borders of psychosis.

The production involves a staging of two halves, not in the sense of merely being divided into two acts, but as two separate stories happening simultaneously on stage. Although aware of another story on the periphery, one’s focus is primarily directed towards the narrative directly in one’s gaze. After the interval, the audience switched to the other side of the auditorium so that you then directly experienced the alternative narrative. This may sound confusing, but it in fact added to the sense that life, its people and its stories are complex and chaotic, both real and unreal at the same time, and our interpretation of same is largely context-driven.

The writers state that ‘Our aim is to de-stigmatise and normalize psychosis and ultimately engage you in a quiet revolution in social interaction.’ This they achieve, working within the principles of the Lapland dialogical approach to treatment where uncertainty is allowed and a polyphony of voices flourishes.

The production challenges audience expectations using the technical device of switching space, stories and perspective in the second half of the performance. The play also questions what might be expected from an audience. There is no room for passivity here, audience involvement is pretty much demanded.

Unsurprisingly, there are references to the words of the psychiatrist RD Laing, who was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement and wrote extensively about psychosis, focusing on feelings as expressions of lived experience rather than mere symptoms of mental illness:

“I experience you and you experience me.”

“I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.”

This funny and tragic play moved and troubled me. Most of the time, I was unsure what exactly was unfolding on stage. Life was happening, I guess, equally troubled, unpredictable, inconsistent, indefinable, frightening, and at times joyous.

The production will have a short run at The Albany Theatre at the end of February. If you can, don’t miss.