Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
    Opened 9 September, 2010

The first play written by a woman to be staged at the Globe in either its modern or original incarnations is about the big picture rather than the narrative arc. Certainly, there are a number of plotlines, and the good end happily and the bad unhappily (that is, as Oscar Wilde wrote, what Fiction means), but Nell Leyshon is interested in showing us a period, an attitude, rather than a particular character’s journey.
Her Bedlam is a fictionalised version of the real Bethlehem (Bethlem) Hospital for the insane as it was in mid-18th century London: managed on dynastic principles (four successive generations of the same family ran Bethlem at this time), subjecting patients to bleeding, blistering and purges seemingly at random, simply to be trying something to cure their brain-sickness. Above all the sense of duty to the inmates is here eclipsed by that to the visitors who pay to gawk at and even taunt and otherwise abuse them.
As with any such play, most of the characters are types. We see the good doctor (visiting), the bad doctor (in charge: Jason Baughan takes the acting laurel of the evening) and the stupid doctor (the bad one’s son). They minister to the inmate who should have been discharged, the others who would respond to sympathy and calm rather than leeches and prodding, and the gentle-giant comic relief (Sean Kearns in fine form). Outside the gates are the genteel visitor who sees the error of her ways and begins to help, and the one who is all self-regard and cares nothing for the inmates, even though one is the mother of his child (Sam Crane, not physically airy-fairy enough to portray his self-absorbed poet convincingly, and not to be confused with the artistically impassioned inmate, Danny Lee Wynter). Coming and going between the worlds are the Rubenesque gin-seller (Ella Smith, who drives most of the cast/audience dynamic as well as much of the action) and a bunch of Bedlamites who sing a clutch of period songs ranging from a too-Englishified version of “Seven Drunken Nights” to “Oyster Nan”, which Leyshon rightly describes as “unbelievably filthy”. Jessica Swale’s bouncy production for the most part staves off worries that, in a way, we are doing little different from those 18th-century visitors in laughing at mental illness.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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