Shakespeare regularly explored themes of madness and melancholia: Hamlet feigns madness, Ophelia is driven mad and Jacques is a casebook melancholic. Links between theatre and the mind can also be found in reverse: Freud’s Oedipus Complex theory, describing the origins of certain neuroses in children, has its roots in Sophocles' plays.
In the 18th century people used to go to Bedlam to stare at the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the "show of Bethlehem" and laugh at their antics. In the 21st Century people are attracted to understanding the fragility of the human mind through theatre, and although attitudes have changed since the ‘freak shows’ of Bedlam, it's clear that our fascination with madness remains.
Playwrights have used theatre to express and understand the nature of various psychoses, often using madness as a metaphor to critique the state of the society we live in: Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade is set in a mental asylum and explores themes of political violence, suffering and the class struggle.
Theatre provides a forum for bringing these often taboo subjects into the public consciousness: Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis; Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are all examples where an exploration of mental health is the main theme. More recently, Julie McNamara’s The Knitting Circle was written from authentic testimonies of survivors of the long stay hospitals/asylums that closed in the 80s; accounts that highlight the barbaric treatments and the betrayal of thousands of people outcast from a society that wouldn't take responsibility for its most vulnerable citizens.
As with Sarah Kane, creatives have often responded to issues of mental health through their work, such as Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys, to name but a few. Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax are more modern day examples of artists who are publicly open about their own experiences.
Michael Wall's Women Laughing uses humour to explore mental illness as an issue that affects every one of us to varying degrees. Comparing the different mental conditions of two men and the affect it has on their wives, the play asks uncomfortable questions, such as to what extent we are responsible for our own mental well-being, both individually and as a society. Certainly in the 1980s, where significant political, social and economic changes were occurring, there was a less holistic approach to mental health than there is today but the ratio of men to women using the system has barely changed (29% women to 17% men). Likewise many of the taboos around accessing help for mental illness remain - especially for men, who still account for 75% of suicides in Britain.
Making mental illness less of a taboo is a vital step towards helping people - both men and women - to ask for the support they need. There is always the hope that by addressing these issues in theatre making, we can help unlock some of the fears and concerns people have about talking about mental health.
Sally Rose is currently starring in a revival of Michael Wall's Women Laughing at the Old Red Lion, which runs until 27 October
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