Symposium – Arts, Society and Ethics (The Mason Institute)


On Thursday, August 22nd, I attended a symposium on art, ethics and society, hosted by Edinburgh University’s Mason Institute. It’s difficult to capture in words the energy this in–depth discussion of bioethics, humanity and the role of art had. Novelists, directors, performers, visual artists gave their thoughts on the role of art as a medium for ethical issues, and the ethical responsibilities of artists.

The discussion ranged from the specific (should foetuses found to have achondroplasia be aborted) to the general (“As an artist, how do you stay safe?”). There were also moments of genuine disagreement, as a speaker from the floor argued that Sparkle and Dark’s acclaimed Killing Roger was a dangerous fantasy, since “people like that don’t seek assisted suicide”. The play’s author, Lawrence Illsley, strongly defended the autonomy of art, responding “of course it’s fantasy”.

This exchange summed up the major point to arise from the discussions – Is the artist’s role to accurately reflect a tightly defined concept of ‘evidence’ or to provide something which is viable as fiction? The question is obviously unanswerable, or at least has a different answer for each act of creation at each time. What is important, as The Fantasist director Ailin Conant emphasised, is that the ethical dimensions are recognised, and space always remains open for dialogue, for learning.

A selection of some of the comments which stuck with me will do more to give a sense of the range of the conversation than any more description from me (I can’t vouch for their accuracy, but the sense is true):

“Puppets struggle to live on stage, while actors struggle to die on stage” – Shelley Knowles-Dixon, Sparkle and Dark.

“What right do I have to address these issues?” – Knowles-Dixon.

“We need to engage both the brain and the heart [when addressing ethical issues in art]” – Hazel McHaffie (Author)

“Writing fiction gives space for the reader to follow, to think, to be stimulated” – Ann Lingard (Author)

“Ethics is about keeping people safe. Art, by definition, is unsafe” – Ailin Conant, Theatre Témoin

“Art can exploit the audacity of ignorance” – Simon Biggs, (Artist)

“[Artistic ethics are about] basic humanity, basic respect, basic love” – Ailin Conant.


Review: the Fantasist (theatre Temoin)

NB 1 – apologies for the lack of acute accents in this piece, my tablet seems to think no-one would ever want to use them.

NB 2 – This review contains spoilers.

Madness at the Fringe is always a bit difficult. Often, plays which deal with mental illness are produced by young companies with little personal experience and simplistic attitudes. White clad lunatics rock and moan, or else medical interventions are straightforwardly positive

Happily, none of this simplification is present in the tour de force production entitled The Fantasist, playing until the end of the fringe at Underbelly Bristo Square. Theatre temoin, consisting of performers from Britain and France, bring together puppetry, an original electronic soundtrack, and a stunningly energetic lead performance from Julia Yevnine as Louise to explore the contradictions and misconceptions about and within bipolar disorder.

The piece opens with Yevnine tossing and turning, her mental distress underscored by momentary blasts of white noise which interrupt the sound of her heartbeat. These interruptions draw the audience into Louise’s world, creating a corollary to her experience without trying to depict it naturalistically – we were given an experiential suggestion of her mental state, without any clumsy attempt to suggest that this is the same as her experience.

This experiential approach is combined, through the puppets, with a symbolic rendering of the feelings and contradictions associated with bipolar. A fanciful dance with a blue-velvet-trimmed coat in her wardrobe, and her desire to impress this notional gentleman with her painting leads to her being pursued by, and pursuing, an oversized figure with a hideous green face, as her manic episode grows out of control and she neglects to take her medication.

Although bipolar disorder is linked to creativity in this production, as her mania drives her to paint, the company avoid the post-Romantic suggestion that her experience somehow makes her a better artist. A period of depression causes her, egged on by a pterodactyl-like apparition with the same green face as the blue-coated gentleman, to destroy the painting she has been working on while manic. We are shown that this is a repeated pattern, and never get to see what she has actually painted, as the canvas always points away from the audience.

While it sanctions medical intervention by showing the result of a failure to take the medication brought to her by the nurse, Josie, the production also avoids the trap of taking a straightforwardly ‘medical model’ approach to mental illness. Mid-way through the show, Louise is warned of the consequences of giving into her mania, symbolised by a drink of blue liquid left her by the green-faced gentleman, by a pair of heads she finds in her wardrobe. Both have ended up there as a result of the gentleman’s courtship, one missing an eye and one having suffered burns. The figures could be interpreted as women who have lost their lives due to bipolar disorder, but even in their pitiful state one argues that following the gentleman is worth it, while the other sanctions caution.

At the end of the production, Louise is discovered by Josie attempting to fight off the coat, and is administered an unnamed drug by injection in order to calm her mania. Having calmed Louise down sufficiently, and convinced her that the coat is only a coat, Josie steps out of the room for a moment, at which point Louise, trying on the coat to prove she no longer believes it alive, is dragged into the wardrobe by it. Josie returns and finds Louise missing, although the audience can see that her head has replaced the earlier figures in the wardrobe.

It is not certain that Louise has committed suicide, as Josie finds no trace of her, but it is strongly implied, and the ending thus avoids simplistically suggesting that medical intervention is all that is needed, instead bringing medical approaches into dialogue with lived experiences of mental illness and emphasising the lack of a ‘miracle cure’ (another interpretation of Louise’s disappearance could be that it implies a continuing cycle of stability, highs and lows).

Theatre Temoin have achieved a remarkable feat in the sensitivity with which The Fantasist treats mental illness, the combination of different styles and media blending to emphasise different facets of the experience of mental illness and bring out the contradictions between them. If you happen to have a spare afternoon left before the end of the Fringe, you could do a lot worse than getting a ticket to this – but hurry, the production I saw today was totally sold out.