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At first glance, the exclamation mark in the title “Hysterical! A Hilarious History of Hysteria” could trick the audience into the mistaken assumption that Rebecca Buckle’s show is frivolous. That’s not to say that this piece isn’t funny; it absolutely is, but it’s so much more than that. Buckle’s story is personal, political and essential viewing.
Buckle is both creator and performer and Hysterical wouldn’t work any other way. She has written this incredibly personal piece about her own struggles with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and compares her experiences to those of women diagnosed with Hysteria in the past. Though this could not be described as a play, it is in many ways theatrical. The digital nature of its release means Hysterical is also able to make use of filmic techniques to vary audience perspective and refresh the display.
Ben Pugh’s videography utilises camera angles, jump cuts and extreme close ups to focus audience attention; while direction from Mina Barber in the straight speech sections is simple and unobtrusive. During the first half of the lecture, we’re rarely left to fixate on one image for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Music draws attention to moments of humour.
Buckle wears comedy beards and uses cute puppets to illustrate her point; my attention was uniquely grabbed by the velvet uterus puppet with sequinned ovaries. Who knew internal organs could look so cute and cuddly? Flashbacks to events in Buckle’s own life ground the piece. Particularly poignant are appointments with dismissive GP’s highlighted by the use of black and white film. In balance there are comic sections involving a David Attenborough impression and a Zoom chat with a puppet Freud.
I find the history of women and women’s health fascinating and have done a fair amount of my own research on the topic, but Buckle’s lecture still covers far more than I ever have. It’s detailed without being dull and it goes without saying that the dismissal of women’s pain/symptoms needs more attention globally.
As a speaker, Buckle is engaging and clear. She covers the history of gynaecology and psychology; religious involvement and societal norms; and rages against the glamourisation of the hysterical woman. Even the most-interested like myself would be unlikely to know that the foundation of modern dance can be found in Jean Martin Charcot’s sketches of hysterical paroxysm.
If even a die-hard fan of this sort of thing found their attention waning in the second half (blame my millennial brain and 12 months of working from home) I’d expect the average person to struggle just a bit. The lecture could have used more diagrams, graphics etc in the second half and as a lecture it did feel a little off-brand for the Theatre Royal Stratford East I used to know. Admittedly, we’ve all had to diversify over the last year and I like a good lecture, but others may be misled.
Hysterical is worth a watch, but more than that it’s necessary viewing for all genders and the medical profession. It’s a shame that it will be considered by some as a niche subject and that is exactly why it needs to be shared.
Hysterical is also available with BSL interpretation; captions and Audio Description.
Hysterical is available online from 29th March 2021, for more information and to watch see Theatre Royal Stratford East’s website.