Bedlam

Published September 10, 2010

Nell Leyshon, the first woman playwright to have a play staged at Shakespeare’s Globe, takes as her subject matter the Bethleham hospital, otherwise known as Bedlam, in the mid-18th century.

At times it is bedlam on the Globe’s stage in Leyshon’s mostly comic play. Of course there is nothing funny about the treatment received by those locked up in what would have then been called a lunatic asylum. In this pre-psychiatry era, doctors treated the mentally ill with leeches, blood-letting, laxatives and cold baths. Meanwhile the general public were invited to pay one penny to come and jeer at the inmates, and given a stick to poke them with. At one point a character in Bedlam, a doctor, gives thanks that they have “moved on from feeding our patients roasted mouse” as if the new treatment meted out is an improvement on the past.

Thankfully, most of the humour in Leyshon’s play comes at the expense of the ‘sane’ characters. Those in the asylum, mostly women, are portrayed as sympathetic victims at the mercy of the system, but those on the outside – particularly the men – receive short shrift from Leyshon. Dr Carew (Jason Baughan), the hospital’s chief doctor, and Laurence (Sam Crane), a foppish poet who becomes entranced by one of the patients, are both portrayed as narcissistic fools who deserve their ultimate comeuppance. Indeed what Leyshon has cleverly managed to do is depict the rife sexism of the times while making the men who dish it out come across as complete idiots.

But what of the story? There is no one principal narrative; rather, Leyshon’s play is a series of vignettes which come together to portray life in and around the hospital. As well as the inmates, we meet the hospital workers who bleed the patients and mop the floor, we see the visitors coming to laugh at the patients, and we witness the impossibility of proving yourself sane if you are incarcerated in an asylum. These scenes are interwoven around the individual stories of many characters, including buxom, bawdy gin-seller Phyllis (a vibrant Ella Smith) and Carew’s dignified wife, who must take charge when her husband succumbs to drunkenness and a “gentleman’s illness”.

Leyshon also gives ample opportunity for audience participation, occasionally descending into farce. The play begins with a punch-up among the groundlings, later a man is pulled from the audience to help demonstrate treatments on stage, and at one point an unlucky few receive the contents of a bed pan on their heads.

Like the visitors who pay 1p to poke a stick at the patients, in watching Bedlam we have become the voyeurs. We can laugh at it now, and Leyshon invites us to, but the laughter is balanced by a reminder of how things once were and how far we have thankfully come since then.

CB

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