Review: M.E.H, The Place, Bedford

As part of a collaboration with The Place, Bedford, we are publishing reviews by three young writers between June and August 2019. This is the final one and it is by 14 year old Alex Felice.

The Outbound Project’s quirky production of M.E.H (Mass Epidemic Hysteria) tells the story of the dancing plague of 1518, when hundreds of people felt an uncontrollable urge to relentlessly dance on the streets of Strasbourg. Intertwined with this is the re-enactment of French neurologist Dr Jean-Martin Charcot’s hypnosis demonstrations with ‘hysterics’ in 1877, and the play finishes with a monologue dripping with existential questions, which will cause you to leave the theatre with an open, active mind.

On entering the theatre, the actors are already on stage warming up in front of the audience, breaking the fourth wall and communicating that we are indeed watching a theatre company tell a story. One of the actors tells us she is the director of the theatre company, and begins directly addressing the audience. This forthrightness is unexpected as it follows a beautifully spot-lit solo dance that has enraptured the audience. Whilst the director/actor questions the audience in a witty way, she may be perceived as almost intimidating at times, and makes the less-confident of us feel uneasy – is it her aim to cause confusion?

Although the storylines are intriguing, clarity would be appreciated at some points: there are ambiguous moments and an audience member with no prior knowledge to the incidents (like me) is left puzzled. Having said that, the play is aesthetically exquisite to watch, and the dancing stands out. The aggression and desperation of the actors synchronised by the lighting and sound makes the movement powerful and compelling. One particularly potent moment is when one of the actors has a fit – her tense, rigid movements are so convincing that I want to leap out of my seat to help her! The physical theatre adapts a particular style whereby the actors move as one with their props, adapting a certain controlled lightness to their physicality – this is another detail that makes the small vignettes of each interwoven story so spellbinding to watch. Another stand-out moment is the hypnosis demonstrations: the actor portraying the doctor forcefully moves the limbs and head of the actor playing the ‘hysteric’, who I must commend for her ability to switch between contrasting emotions seamlessly.

The poignant ending is what everything builds up to – the philosophical monologue delivered by the actor who spends most of the show dancing in a clear plastic structure. When the show’s director reaches the end of her tether with the actors and the audience (this part has me laughing out loud) the mood is taught and uncomfortable. However, the monologue, performed with curiosity, emotion and desperation brings the audience back to a thoughtful place. An effective ensemble dance piece closes this unconventional production. I was laughing, cringing, gasping and lost in thought – a bohemian, well-executed piece of other-worldly theatre.

M.E.H played on 21 July. For more information and tickets for other shows, visit The Place website.