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.

MSc Thesis: Mental Health in Scottish Theatre

Below is the abstract of my Edinburgh MSc thesis, and a link to a pdf of the full text.

I hope that this might be useful to people looking at Scottish Mental Health policy, as well as students studying Neilson’s plays, or just people interested in the range of activities that comprise ‘mental health in theatre’.

I’ll probably make some attempt to get some of this published, so any feedback is very, very welcome.


How Theatre NEMO and Anthony Neilson use drama to challenge perceptions of mental ill health in Scotland 2003-2010.

Despite a continued interest in the study of power-relations and discourse following Michel Foucault’s work on psychiatric power in society, there has been little attempt to examine the representation of mental illness in literature and culture as anything other than an artistic trope. This thesis examines the specific ways that performances have engaged with mental health discourses in Scotland since the passing of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003. By reading Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Theatre NEMO’s Does Anyone Know in the light of Scottish policy discourse, the thesis draws attention to the potentials and limitations of performance as a medium for engaging with the issues facing mental health service-users. This includes the impact of physical presence in performance and the risks of falling into conventional, stereotyped views of madness. By doing this, the thesis exposes the extent to which the power-relations within the mental health system are related to mental distress, as well as the ways that transformational strategies in performance can have a positive impact in revealing and challenging these power-structures.

Full text [pdf] available here

Diagram of the House at Charenton

Below is a plan of Charenton, the setting of Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, as it was in 1836. Since the site was apparently redesigned in 1845, it seems likely that this plan represents the hospital as it was known to the historical de Sade and Coulmier.

I have also translated the key to the diagram, to make it clearer (and show how many ‘bathhouses’ there were). My French isn’t fantastic, so I’m sure some of this is inaccurate, and the major problem is the attempt to render Nineteenth century French terms for madness into idiomatic English for the Twenty-first. I’ve tried to get some sense of what these terms imply, but have provided the original in square brackets afterwards, so that people better at French than I am can come to their own conclusions, and tell me in the comments.

Many thanks to @miss_sobriety on twitter for bouncing ideas around about possible translations.

The hospital at Charenton

Plan of the house at Charenton [Charenton Hospital]

1. Main Gate

2. Porter’s lodge

3, 3, 3. Front courtyard.

3’. Passage from front courtyard to courtyard 10.

4’. Parlour above store rooms.

4. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms: on the first, a large hall, occupied by placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles]: on the second, the director’s rooms, and a lounge for convalescents of both sexes: on the third, the bursar’s offices and some employees’ lodgings: the top floor is taken up with the big clock.

5. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms: on the first, the kitchens: on the second, the offices of the director, and those of the treasurer, and a room for the head doctor: on the third, the bursar’s lodgings (with a view of the gardens): on the fourth floor, lodgings for the employees.

6. Gallery which runs under the eaves of the third floor, connecting the director’s apartment to the dining room.

7. Stairs to the chapel.

8. Enclosed courtyard for the women, leading to garden 18.

9. Stairs by which one descends to courtyard 10.

10. Courtyard for madwomen who are scabrous, with a tendency to clamour [ordinairement agitées et galeuses].

11. Four story building. On the ground floor, a gallery which runs the whole length of the building, and onto which open the rooms occupied by agitated women: on the first floor, a corridor with rooms for women who are far out of their reason, yet calm [très déraisonnables, mais tranquilles].

12. On the first floor, a warm-room for agitated women: on the first floor, a warm-room which also serves as a work-room.

13. Courtyard for very disturbed women

13’. Courtyard related to the baths.

14. Isolation building for very disturbed women [très agitées].

15. Six dressing rooms [loges] and a gallery: above, a sick bay for suicidal patients [or attempted suicides – les suicides].

16. Bathhouse.

17. Dressing rooms [loges] for disturbed [agitées] women and a gallery overlooking the courtyard.

17’’. Warm-room.

18. Garden for placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles].

19. Four story building. On the ground floor, a large hall for lunatics [les aliénées]: on the first and second floors, lodgings for the medical inspector, the chaplain, the warder, and some residents: on the third, a sick bay which, due to the uneven ground, is no more than one floor above the terrace: on the fourth floor, under the roof, is the women’s laundry.

20. The director’s personal garden.

21. Greenhouse.

22. Courtyard of the new building for placid madwomen [aliénées tranquilles].

23. Gallery.

24. Three story building. On the ground floor, a dining room, a meeting and work room, a dormitory: on the first floor, dormitories and bedrooms: on the second, two large dormitories.

25. Three stories, the ground floor with a gallery, divided into bedrooms: the same on the two higher floors.

26. Bathhouse, with a semi-circular dormitory above.

28. Terraces and gardens.

29. Courtyard used to store wood.

30. Four story building. On the ground floor, offices: on the first, the chapel: on the second, the dining room: on the third, a sick bay for placid madmen [aliénés tranquilles]: on the fourth, a dormitory.

31. Kitchen courtyard, separated from the garden by a terraced wall.

32. Bridge leading from the third floor of building 5 into the garden.

32. Billiards room at the height of the small bridge 32.

33. Bath courtyard.

[3]4. Four story building. On the ground floor, store rooms; on the first floor you find, at the same level as courtyard 33, a sick bay for lunatics, both those who are disturbed and those who are catatonic [les aliénés paralytiques et agitées]: on the second, a sick bay for those who are placid or only slightly disturbed [tranquilles ou peu agités]: on the third, rooms with one or two beds.

35 & 38. Buildings connected at right angles, with four stories. Along the middle of each floor, a corridor, on each side of which open rooms of one and two beds: heated meeting rooms.

36. Bathhouse.

37. Courtyard for maniacs/those in a frenzy [furieux].

39. Courtyard for those who are disturbed and incurable [agités et incurables].

40. Dovecote.

41. Building containing the pump which provides water for the whole house.

42, 42, 42, 42. Courtyard and promenade.

43. One story building: On the ground floor, dressing rooms and a gallery: on the floor above, corridor and bedrooms.

44. Heater for the first floor.

45. Heater for the ground floor.

47. One story building. On the ground floor, the bakery: on the first floor, which is at the same level as the courtyard no. 42, three dressing rooms for the most disturbed lunatics [les aliénés les plus agités].

48. Hayloft.

49. One story building. On the ground floor, the cowshed: on the first floor, a large sick bay.

50. One story building. On the ground floor, the pharmacy, and a room for four sick paupers who are not insane: on the first floor, the lodgings of the medical assistant, and the laundry.

51. Stairs connecting the medical assistant to the large sick bay [49].

52. Store rooms and workshops.

53. Farmyard.

54. Autopsy room.

55. Gardener’s lodge.

56. Sloping path leading from the front courtyard, under building no. 49, to garden 57.

57. Garden.

58. Lodgings for several employees.

59. A small pond.

P. Bridge crossing a branch of the Marne, leading to an island owned by the institution.

E. General sewer.

I. Island.

M. Isolated house belonging to the institution.

Figure 2 – New female quarters.

1. Gallery open to the country air.

2. Meeting room.

3. Two dormitories, each with a single row of beds.

4. Galleries.

5. Servery.

6. Room, furnace and apparatus for the baths.

7. Round pathway.

8. Corridor, onto which open the bedroom doors.

9. Bedrooms.

10. Lounge and dining-room.

11. Dormitory.

12. Lodgings for nurses, and passages.

In the middle of the courtyard, a fountain and a lamppost.

Source: Esquirol, Etienne. 1836. Des Maladies Mentales Considérées Sous Les Rapports Médical, Hygiénique Et Médico-légal, Volume 2, pp. 702-6.
Available here.

Madness and Theatre: Does Anyone Care?

Why, you ask, would anyone want to spend 3 years of their life researching how mental distress is represented in contemporary British drama? Surely there are more important issues, and, anyway, theatre has lost its position as lead source of entertainment, now only serving a minority of the middle-classes.

All of this may be true – there are certainly more important issues in the area of mental health research, and theatre audiences have indeed been dwindling. However, since theatre from Edward Bond to Sarah Daniels, Caryl Churchill to Mark Ravenhill has possessed (at least self-styled) ‘radical’ aesthetics, it is interesting to see how these authors treat the issues surrounding madness.

For Churchill and Daniels, madness is repeatedly invoked as a trope for the effect of patriarchy on women – marginalized and denied a voice, the characters in, for example, Daniels’ The Madness of Esme and Shaz manifest their oppression through madness, a trope drawn partly from half of the dichotomy presented by Gilbert and Guber in The Madwoman in the Attic. Bond and Ravenhill tie an interest in psychic distress with politico-economic themes in, for example, Lear and Shopping and Fucking respectively.

In fact, madness became more central to theatre in the so-called ‘In-Yer-Face’ movement of the 1990s, not least with the plays of Sarah Kane. When something which affects a large number of people for at least part of their lives is also being treated extensively on the stage, it is important to examine the reasons for this. As yet, very few reviewers or academics have treated these instances as actually having an impact on how people view ‘real’ mental-health service-users, preferring to see madness as it has always been – a literary trope with little connection to real-life experience.

This is clearly a problem. Feminist literary theorists have demonstrated how language shapes the way we conceive of sectors of society, and the representation of women as ‘types’ has been rightly identified as a symptom of the oppressive social discourse operating around them.  The same analysis must be applied to the representation of mad/mentally-ill people, especially when these representations occur in plays with an otherwise radical and inclusive agenda.

When plays focused on exclusion and discrimination use madness as only a trope, or a way to add dimensions to a character, or as a symptom of wider social disquiet, they diminish the impact of madness on the individual, as well as reenforcing the stereotypes which contribute to discrimination against mental health service users. On the other hand, representations which complicate or challenge these stereotypical views can contribute towards a more nuanced view of mad/mentally ill people, thereby combating the discrimination which causes social ostracism and exacerbates distress.