Wisdom, madness and folly

Kate Johnstone reviews Patrick Marmion's new play 'The Divided Laing'.

Psych-professionals are popular characters in plays and films, but portrayals of actual people are much rarer - with the notable exception of Dr Freud. The problem is presumably not only must their work be original, interesting and accessible, but there needs to be a person worth portraying.

Step forward R. D. Laing. In the 60s and 70s, Laing was a towering figure, both professionally and culturally. For some academics Laing still matters; but culturally, he has all but disappeared. It was therefore a smart choice by Patrick Marmion to put Laing centre-stage in his new play, The Divided Laing (humorously subtitled ‘The Two Ronnies’).

During the 1960s, Laing, a qualified psychiatrist, published books such as The Divided Self and The Politics of Experience. These challenged brutal and cruel practises in mental institutions – satirised by Ken Kelsey in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest in 1962. Laing asked fundamental existential questions about the nature of mental illness in general, and schizophrenia in particular. Emotional and mental distress existed, and should be responded to with kindness and compassion. But he argued that ‘mental illness’ was a natural reaction to an ill society, and not due to individual biology or brain chemistry. As 60s culture changed, Laing was in the right place at the right time to put his theories into practise.

The play is set in Kingsley Hall in 1970, a rundown building in East London and the location of Laing’s radical attempts to turn psychiatry on its head. There, all rules were off. There were no white coats, and no division between patient and psychiatrist. No-one would receive electric shock therapy or lobotomies; and no-one would take drugs: or at least, not medically prescribed ones. LSD and other recreational drugs were encouraged.

At the start of the play, Laing (Alan Cox) arrives after a long absence globe-trotting, visiting his neglected family in Glasgow, and numerous TV and radio appearances. He is fallen upon with relief by Mary Barnes (Laura-Kate Gordon), the most high-profile of Laing’s patients. David Cooper (Oscar Pearce), a Marxist and prominent anti-psychiatrist, is being talked down from the roof by Joe Berke (James Russell), a gentle Jewish-American doctor who travelled to the UK to work with Laing. Aaron Esterson (Kevin McMonagle) is also glad to see Laing, but for different reasons: they’re about to be thrown out of Kingsley Hall. Laing takes it all his stride, charming and cajoling those around him to bend to his will.

But as the play progresses, tensions mount. Joe wants to leave, Cooper is challenging, the locals are rioting, and Laing’s pregnant partner Ulrike (Amiera Darwish) is about to pop. Worse, Laing’s relationship with Esterson is declining - they co-founded The Philadelphia Association – and Laing is worried he may lose control of it.

Although not an out-and-out comedy, the play is undoubtedly funny, shot through with dry Glasgow humour, appropriately fruity language and farce. Oscar Pearce makes the most of the best scene when, tripped out on LSD, he recounts a surreal sexual experience whilst standing on a table in a grubby vest and Y-fronts. Cox gives a sophisticated performance, his Laing laid-back and empathetic, yet also capable of hogging the limelight and not caring who gets trampled on the way.

This is how Laing is ‘divided’: and towards the end, there are literally two Ronnies on the stage, as Marmion imagines what might have happened in Laing had not died in 1989, but lived on today (he’d be 88). Marmion comes down on the side of current orthodoxy - ‘Take your medication, contribute to group therapy, don’t misbehave and you’ll be out in no time’. You sold out, says 1970 Ronnie. No, it’s because it works, replies 2015 Ronnie. Maybe both are true.

The Divided Laing is an accomplished piece which anyone with an interest in psychology or mental health would enjoy. And as well as this play, next year sees the release of a biopic starring David Tennant - so perhaps the name of R. D. Laing will again be known to the wider public.

- Kate Johnstone, Associate Editor (Reviews).

Running at The Arcola Theatre until 12 December 2015. This Saturday 28 November, from 5:30-6:30pm, 'Does R.D. Laing still matter?' will be an informal discussion with leading practitioners in the field of psychiatry and psychotherapy looking at the life, work and legacy of RD Laing. In attendance will be: Dr Peter Misch (Consultant Psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital), Antonia Davy (RD Laing’s former secretary), Dr Kay Mordecal (psychotherapist) and Patrick Marmion (writer of The Divided Laing) as well as members of the cast.

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