“Thank the Lord you ain’t in there with them”
The first play ever to be written for the Globe by a woman, Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam is the final play to open in this year’s set of offerings. A slice of life of those both in and around the Bethlem mental hospital in London, or Bedlam as it is better known. The plot as such centres around Dr Carew’s corrupt running of the asylum, concerned more with women and profit than observing the Hippocratic oath and actually caring for his patients. But the arrival of new patients and a much more socially aware doctor loosens his grip and soon everything begins to change.
It is huge amount of fun and Jessica Swale’s direction has a very keen sense of the possibilities of playing in the Globe, especially with the yardlings. Soutra Gilmour’s design has the stage in a circle with a ramp going up one side, but if you’re in the yard, be prepared for all sorts of interaction, both on the floor and on the stage and a range of bodily fluids and liquids to come flying at you from the sides and indeed above! And it is so wonderfully musical, taking advantage of the rich archive to pull out a number of songs like ‘A Maid In Bedlam’ and ‘Oyster Nan’, covering ballads to bawdy drinking songs, and it all really works.
Leyshon is careful to show us the one-size-fits-all mentality that existed and so the patients we see cover the whole gamut from clearly sane yet trapped to certifiably bonkers, yet all are treated the same with leeches and blood-letting amongst the remedies on display here. But contrasted with that is the hedonism and lack of responsibility that abounded in society as hilariously displayed in the upper classes in Lawrence’s garden parties (the English country garden one is a delight) and the lower classes through the mass addiction to gin. Life has its moments of anarchic fun both inside and outside the asylum but these are also tempered with moments of sobering reality.
Performance-wise, it is hard to fault anyone in this ensemble, so many of whom are covering numerous roles in the two Henry IV plays (the runs of which have now been extended) and so must be working incredibly hard. Matters are helped by the multi-stranded nature of the play, so that there’s a fairly even division of labour here and no-one disappoints.
I was pleased to see Barbara Marten get a lovely role here as Carew’s quietly dignified wife, a model of absolute compassion and with a gorgeous dress to boot; Sam Crane does an excellent fop as Lawrence, a wannabe poet with an easily turned head and a passion for plucking; Joseph Timms’ naïf Matthew was nicely played as was Sophie Duval’s brusque asylum nurse Sal, Phil Cheadle’s handsome forward-thinking doctor and Finty William’s astute Gardenia also brightened up the stage. Ella Smith’s bumptious gin maid was a comic delight, especially with her singing in the tavern songs and I have to mention Sean Kearns’ beautiful lament too which was just spine-tingling.
With such strong performances and an absolutely wicked first half, it almost feels a shame to mention any weaknesses, but the play does begin to lose its way in the second half. Having set itself up as this huge slice of life without any real predominating storyline which works really well, it then proceeds to wrap up each thread neatly, far too neatly in fact and in doing so, loses some of the element of fun. And because it is a comedy, albeit one dealing with inhabitants of a mental asylum, it merely flirts with the more serious issues like the changing attitudes towards the causes of mental illness which it would have been interesting to explore more and the appalling idea of visiting hours at the asylum (extremely distasteful but often the only way they could raise finance). As it is, the announcement of the introduction of more humane care in the asylum just plays as the removal of everything fun about Bedlam!
So an interesting piece of work and one which is engaging, entertaining and impeccably well acted. Personally I feel there is a missed opportunity to delve further into the depths of the issues that it skates over to give it more weight and more of a tragicomic tone, but then if it did so, it wouldn’t be the comedy it is and half as much fun. A strong effort nonetheless and one well worth a visit.