Based on the memoir of Arnhild Lauveng, Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion gives a unique and honest perspective on the mind of a girl who is suffering from schizophrenia. It is simultaneously messy and loud and startling and disturbing, contrasted with moments of serene peace and tranquillity, which I can only imagine is what living with an illness of that nature must be like. In its most tender moments, it brings a lump to the throat, as schoolgirl Arnhild with a ribbon in her hair (initially Emily Houghton) tries to scream the voices away and carries one of them, the Captain (Oliver Bennett), around on her back. Incredibly visceral, it uses abstract movement and sound to create emotion, not just ordinary words and gestures.

The relatively small space of the Arcola theatre in Dalston is used incredibly well. With very few props and virtually no set, save for 5 chairs and 5 books, the play seems to conjure different environments and backdrops out of thin air. The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of a brilliant light show. Stencils and torches are used by the cast to demonstrate the ‘red forest’ Arnhild feels as though she is in, and shadows are used to create two silhouettes of herself on the large wall behind her. A camera is also concealed in a book, and feeds the footage it is capturing live onto the wall behind the stage as the actors speak into it, all adding more dimensions to the play and creating an idea of what it might be like inside Arnhild’s head. Created by lighting and video designer Iain Smythe, the tricks of light and video add to help create the overwhelming confusion Arnhild was trying so desperately hard to explain and overcome.

Houghton is breathless and brilliant as she portrays Arnhild in the early stages of her life, overpowered by her developing disease. Alex Robertson is gentle and warming as the memorable triathlete/nurse who would simply run beside Arnhild when she tried to run away. Samantha Pearl is equally as clear and emotive during her turn at playing Arnhild, and the ensemble cast together run like a well-oiled machine, perfectly switching in and out of various roles.

Developing a play about schizophrenia, which is still such a taboo subject, mustn’t have been an easy feat, but director and adapter of the original memoir Vladmir Scherban seems to have done it in such a way that is both mindful and uninhibited. At times Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion is confusing and perhaps so abstract that it almost isolates itself, but that’s okay. It is, in moments, so raw and disturbing it feels almost intrusive to watch, and maybe uncomfortable – the same reaction most of us have when talking about mental illness and psychosis. It’s at times confusing, we don’t understand it, and we want to look away. Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion provides such a human perspective, the story of just one woman’s experience with the condition makes it personal and, in turn, easier to understand. Rather than feeling a fleeting moment of pity as we read a pamphlet full of facts and figures – we instead imagine ourselves as Arnhild. She tells us ‘an individual isn’t a statistic’, and Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion demonstrates this perfectly. It doesn’t just tell you what schizophrenia is supposed to be like; it shows you how it feels, and suddenly it doesn’t feel so abstract anymore. The Belarus Free Theatre company have a reputation for staging politically vocal plays, and I’m glad they do. With mental illness affecting most of us one way or another, it is essential we talk about it.

Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion is playing at the Arcola Theatre until October 29 and at The Albany until November 12. 

Photo: Marilyn Kingwill