By Aimee Dickinson
Three actors stand closely huddled in the centre of the stage, clutching each other’s hands, as intense violin music plays over the speakers. From either side of the audience, two actors dressed in doctors’ uniforms look on with smiles. At the back, a projector displays disturbing scenes of a woman being undressed. Bede Chapel transforms into a Victorian insane asylum in Wrong Tree Theatre’s ‘Bedlam’, creating a spectacle horrifyingly believable and impossible to look away from.
Centred around three inmates played by Kyle Kirkpatrick, Sammy French and Isabel McGrady, incarcerated respectively for ‘sexual perversion’, ‘melancholia’ and ‘hysteria’, Bedlam provides an innovative and intriguing portrayal of a Victorian asylum while still staying grounded in the facts of this ominous historical institution. Emily Carter, the director, along with the ensemble should be congratulated for their original script which was compelling and authentic throughout, incorporating excerpts of poetry effectively. Rather than forcing exposition, the story is allowed to unfold naturally, leaving the character of Eleanor, played by Alana Mann, shrouded in mystery as she stays silent through most of the beginning of the play. The individuality of the characters throughout is a highlight of the show; each is shown to have individual motivations and differing views on the asylum, the variety of which makes the production truly interesting to watch.
This script is entirely done justice by the passionate performance of the actors. Both Kirkpatrick and French bring a childlike simplicity and naivety to their characters which makes their suffering all the more heartbreaking to watch. The stillness of Mann’s delivery of her monologue is compelling and believable throughout, emphasising the normality of her character in contrast to her surroundings. McGrady’s performance is similarly believable and her ability to move from anger to vulnerability is fascinating to watch. The poise and collected delivery of Sam Draisey as Dr Alfred Monroe is eerie and terrifyingly effective, balanced nicely by Meg Roche’s emotive but controlled portrayal of Nurse Grace as she oscillates between sympathy for the inmates and the necessity of doing her job. Though there are a just few moments when these last two actors lose control slightly in their emotional outbursts and risk losing delivery, the overall impact of the acting is immensely powerful. All the actors successfully master the balance between sincerity and extremity of emotion to deliver a convincing and thought-provoking performance.
The ensemble also makes effective use of repeated movement sequences to create the oppressive monotony of the asylum. As well as helping the audience establish a sense of routine, these repeated sequences build tension throughout the play as the audience grows to anticipate the action. The physical theatre is simple and underplayed meaning it is effective without detracting from the emotional delivery. The visual spectacle of the torture scenes is horrifying but also captivating, forcing the audience to consider the director’s insightful comments on ‘the show of Bedlam’ as a Victorian entertainment, and making us as an audience in part complicit with the atrocities taking place on stage. This is coupled with an innovative use of props, such as the scene of bloodletting being portrayed using long red ribbons pulled from French’s clothing, his agonised groans juxtaposing the elegant movement sequence being performed around him. In the final scene, McGrady is trapped alone in the middle of the stage while the other four actors surround her with mirrors, demonstrating the play’s interest in the fracturing of identity. I was particularly intrigued by the use of different colours of paint smeared on the actors’ faces, which as the play goes on are shown to symbolise different treatments they receive in the asylum, demonstrating how their personalities are being slowly erased.
The movement sequences are underscored by a combination of instrumental recorded music, jarring and ominous bells, as well as a harmonica played live on stage. However, arguably most effective is the production’s use of silence, making scenes such as the attempted sexual assault all the more disturbing. Despite being grounded in history, this is a very powerful and modern piece exploring issues of identity, sanity, and duty which are arguably just as relevant now as they were to the Victorians.
Image: Wrong Tree Theatre