The SICK Festival returns to Brighton with an array of cutting edge performance that seeks to open up conversations about health and mental health. Colin Hambrook went to a performance by the theatre group Ridiculusmus inspired by a research trip to Finland.
From the title of the performance and not knowing the work of the company Ridiculusmus I went expecting a theatre piece that talked explicitly about the transformation of psychiatric services in Finland over the last 30 years through the pioneering Open Dialogue approach to 'treatment', which advocates the use of medication as a last resort.
I have a personal interest, being one of three generations of schizophrenics and having had 50 years experience of the so-called 'illness'. There is a big clue about my feelings about schizophrenia in the 'so-called'. Despite billions of dollars on research medical science has never identified a gene or even defined exactly what schizophrenia is.
Psychiatrists with any integrity have always questioned the notion of a curative approach using anti-psychotic medications. And it was interesting that the pivotal speech within Ridiculusmus' piece of devised theatre took us back to RD Laing, who's career revolved on a persistent questioning of the role of psychiatry.
The much-maligned psychiatrist was always emphatic that psychosis is a manifestation of the fact that we are all a figment of each other's imaginations. Much as we want to believe that the world is an incontestable fact, it isn't.
In the performance the doctor quotes the essay 'Experience as evidence' from RD Laing’s The Politics of Experience, which gives an incisive configuration of the dilemma of being human: 'My experience of you is not inside me… Your experience of me is not inside you…' Ultimately we are invisible to each other and to ourselves.
Ridiculusmus offer a theatre of uncertainty (in the post-show talk writer/ director/ actors David Woods and Jon Haynes confessed that even they weren't sure what was going on in some elements of the performance). And the title The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland is a starting point for a piece of theatre seeking to provoke a conversation.
To give an analogy, the Duchamp ready-made The Fountain continues to challenge people to ask what is art? Similarly, The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland takes its audience into a Looking Glass world (cleverly implied in the staging of the piece) to ask what is psychosis? Is it possible to gain an insight into the nature of the psychotic experience?
And it does so by taking by its audience into the depths of a story about a family crisis. The performance space is divided in two by a curtain and the audience is also split in two reflective halves, experiencing each 40 minute segment alternately. Sounds complicated? Yes it is. And therein lies the poetry of the piece in its effort to evoke the confusion, the humour and the tragedy of auditory and visual hallucination. We see two scenes from different phases of the principal characters life - before and during his treatment for psychosis as triggered by the loss of his brother.
From a Disability Arts perspective the focus of society to eradicate impairment is something the Disability Movement has been challenging since the 1980s. The persistent medical/ charity model emphasis on 'cure' and 'overcoming' is at odds with the social model idea that 'disability' is a role in society, which validates the position of those identified as ‘normal’.
As survivors of the mental health system we often get caught up in proving ourselves to be 'normal', against the odds. However, what appears to be happening in Western Lapland is that the labeling of people going through psychotic episodes is changing. It's the mystification of the experience of psychosis and the over-emphasis on stultifying drug treatments that is being challenged. And perhaps in the process the idea of being 'normal' is itself breaking down?
The performance last Wednesday was annotated with a post-show discussion in which Kathryn Abel Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manchester gave that harrowing statistic that I read often that a higher percentage of those who comply with drug treatments end up dependent and with a life expectancy 30 years lower than the average, whilst those who resist treatment are the people who - like myself - survive the deathly mirror of psychiatric intervention.
It makes you wonder what the hell is going on to keep societies scapegoats in the pen? The new work from Ridiculusmus has come out of personal experience and conviction to try and change things.
It's a life-affirming work. It goes on tour throughout March to London, Scarborough, Falmouth and Grampound, Cornwall. If you get the chance to see it, then do so.