EVEN now, centuries after the word “Bedlam” struck fear into people’s hearts as the madhouse, a terrifying place of violence, cruelty, chains and ignorance, the word still has connotations of chaos. But the play Bedlam, written by Nell Leyshon for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre at Southwark, finds not only some meaning in the chaos but also humanity – and the young actors of Salisbury Playhouse’s Stage 65 youth theatre do justice to this spectacular and powerful drama.
When the Somerset-born playwright, who lives near Christchurch, was commissioned to write a play for the Globe, she began to research the lives of the people who lived and worked at the Bethlehem Hospital, known as Bedlam, the London institution for the insane.
The play is inevitably on a smaller scale at the Salberg Studio than on the vast expanse of the Globe’s stage and surroundings. But with Dave Orme’s tight direction and Natalie Remington’s imaginative and flexible set, the audience is drawn quickly into this snapshot of the madhouse in the 18th century. It was a time when ignorance about madness still meant that “treatments” were endless bleedings, purgings – “laxatives, laxatives, laxatives!” is the cry of one of the careless “carers” – and chains, when a socially superior man could get his pregnant mistress locked up or sufferers from post-natal depression or alcoholism deemed irredeemably mad.
It was a time when the “sane” could pay one penny to come and watch the lunatics in the asylum, and when brandy and gin, often laced with revolting or even poisonous (but cheaper) ingredients, were peddled everywhere. Any of this sound familiar?
Nell Leyshon tells several stories in Bedlam – the slow awakening of concern among educated medical men at the treatment of the insane, the gradual demands of intelligent women to have their feelings considered and their opinions heard, the depths to which loneliness, financial loss, love and alcohol can drive people, and the occasional psychopath whose behaviour can still puzzle the profilers and psychiatrists of the 21st century.
Among the large and excellent cast, Reece Evans gives an astonishing and energetic performance as the senior doctor, Carew, a man who is used to being obeyed, whose treatments are brutal but typical of the time, but whose own hold on sanity is weakening before our eyes. Shanoor Ullah as the more enlightened new governor, Dr Maynard, is the calm and intelligent foil to Carew’s increasingly crazed behaviour.
Hannah Speed is the beautiful, lovesick country girl, May, about whom much of the mayhem madly whirls, with the gin-seller, the Bedlam staff, the poet who put his girlfriend in Bedlam and is now pursuing May, the London society moths who flock to their weekly entertainment in the madhouse and the mad people themselves, from the psychotic painter to the man whose business failure drove him through loss of home and family to drink, the street and eventually Bedlam.
This is a terrific production, full of music and movement, that tells Leyshon’s stories clearly and pulls all the threads together at the end. It may be smaller in scale and at times less grotesque and physical than the Globe original, but it packs a shocking punch.
Photograph by Richard Davenport.