The first production by the Belarus Free Theatre to be performed in English, Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion also swerves away from their overtly political themes to explore the condition and treatment of those with mental health problems. It's an effective and powerful diversion.
The play is based on a book written by the Norwegian Arnhild Lauveng, which charts – with devastating and upsetting precision – how schizophrenia descended on her and defined her life. Even more remarkably, it describes the way, finally, after years incarcerated in various mental health institutions, she managed to overcome the disease and fulfil her long held ambition of becoming a psychologist.
It's an upsetting journey, and one the five-strong cast, directed by Vladimir Shcherban tell by dividing Lauveng's words between them, taking it in turns to embody her and the people who surround her in a free-flowing, constantly shifting narrative. Simple techniques make a huge impact: cigarette smoke blown into the light from an iPhone conjures the fog Lauveng describes filling her mind; large screens show both the images she draws and the treatment she is subjected to; in one wonderful scene, four versions of her running away are exhausted by an indefatigable and kind triathlete doctor.
The acting from Grace Andrews, Oliver Bennett, Emily Houghton, Samantha Pearl and Alex Robertson is uniformly terrific and committed, though Houghton perhaps makes the greatest impact in her depiction of Lauveng. Robert Martland's sound design increases the pain and our identification with her suffering; its screeching sounds are sometimes unbearable. Overall it is an engrossing and provoking evening, brilliantly making its case that the mentally ill are deprived of their rights thanks in part to the sheer difficulty of treating them.
That it is not an absolute triumph arose, in my mind, from two small worries: one large, one small. The small was the decision to let an actress strip naked for a long scene; in such a stylised production there was no need. It felt demeaning and unnecessary. The larger doubt was that the single most astonishing thing about Lauveng's story is that she does, in fact, find a way to live with schizophrenia.
Yet because the production is anxious to make different points, it rushes this element of the tale. One minute she is on the floor, the next she is functioning. It's a failure of imagination and narrative in what is otherwise essential viewing.