If the title is a mouthful, the show itself is a mindful. Commissioned by SICK! Festival Brighton, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland somewhat playfully engages with the rather weighty topic of schizophrenia, namely a treatment known as ‘Open Dialogue’, which has practically achieved the effect proclaimed in the title. The list of thanks in the programme is testament enough to the amount of research behind it, though this research is sensed rather than seen or heard in the show itself, to its great advantage. The research and subject matter led the creators, Jon Haynes and David Woods, to try to embody the illness and its unconventional treatment within the play itself, by experimenting with its form, content and delivery. They play with multiple or uncertain meanings, voices and audience experience to create a powerful and sometimes unsettling picture of mental illness.
The first commendable point is the mechanism by which the audience is split into two halves. So often heavy-handed and intimidating, here we are simply handed a coloured sticker, which determines which side of the council chamber we are to sit on. In the centre is a wall dividing the action and the audience, but allowing certain movements and interactions between the two. With this clever but simple design by George Tomlinson, the company hope to achieve “a simultaneous performance of two plays”. It’s debatable whether what is experienced by one half of the audience constitutes an entire play, but what happens in the interplay between the two is far more interesting.
In quieter moments, one could hear and partly see what was happening on the other side. Performers would speak through the wall, inexplicably pass through momentarily and then return. I became fascinated with the divergent experience that the other half of the audience were having, and the sneaky suspicion that they might be having a better time than me. This is a not only a lovely metaphor for the ‘grass is always greener’ phenomenon; the feeling that there is meaning and a fuller reality just out of reach also seems an elegant illustration of what moments of living with schizophrenia might be like.
Although characters often act inexplicably and bizarrely, this is never overdone, and always seems as if it follows some kind of internal logic, unknown to us. All performances are subtle yet powerful, particular that of the only female member of the cast, Patrizia Paolini. Characters seem to occupy an unstable position – sometimes being sane, sometimes not; sometimes being children, sometimes not; and sometimes being alive, and sometimes being dead – or never alive at all. The multiple narratives of the play never quite emerge into a cohesive or coherent whole, which though unsatisfying, is of course completely appropriate for the subject matter. The tone of the piece is distinctly negative and unsettling, which might seem strange in a piece about an almost miraculous, hopeful method of treatment for schizophrenia. The truth is that this cure, like so much of the play, though now in sight, remains just out of reach.
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland played at Shoreditch Town Hall.