Hild Bede Chapel on a biting January evening is a particularly fitting setting for Emily Carter’s Bedlam, an original production which offers its audience an insight into an institution that has become synonymous with insanity. Evidently well-researched, Carter’s play is an unflinching demonstration of the treatment of the mentally ill in Victorian society, yet also prompts a modern audience to consider their own attitudes on a topic that remains taboo.
The production is brutal, and demands a lot physically of its cast – in one scene, a young man accused of sexual perversion is electrocuted, in another, the rebellious Nellie Digory is thrown across the floor and molested by the hospital doctor. The violence never becomes overwhelming, however, and it is Carter’s focus on the humanity of the patients that makes Bedlam so haunting. Quieter scenes, where one of the characters reveals their supposedly ‘insane’ inner thoughts to the audience, are where the cast truly shine. Much like Nurse Halsome (Meg Roche), we have become so accustomed to images of violence and stories of cruelty that these reminders of the humanity of others come as more of a shock.
Carter’s character development is one of the play’s greatest strengths, and there is a depth even to the initially silent Eleanor (Alana Mann) and the austere Dr Monroe (Sam Draisey). The cast is small, yet each actor does their role justice. Isabel McGrady gives a stand-out performance as Nellie, a ‘hysterical’ young woman who refuses to conform until the final moments. McGrady captures Nellie’s gradual descent into insanity wonderfully, from the character’s initial fury to her increasing desperation. The scene in which she holds widow Matthew (Sammy French) to her chest and sobs is one of the play’s emotional climaxes.
French’s performance, too, is heart-wrenching. Shivering and nail-biting, he is the picture of a grief-stricken young man. ‘We’ve all had imaginary friends,’ fellow patient Jonathan (Kyle Kirkpatrick) notes, as he watches Matthew play chess with his dead wife. This is one of the play’s most important messages: those in Bedlam are human, too. Kirkpatrick’s genuine performance as Jonathan is, for an audience of students, perhaps the most relatable demonstration of that message: ‘not like everyone else,’ he is clearly confused about his own sexual desires.
Carter makes full use of her tech crew to create a truly immersive production. The music adds to the already disconcerting atmosphere, and lighting is used simply, but to great effect. Props are used particularly inventively, with red ribbons used as blood, and coloured paint used throughout to symbolise each character losing their individual spirit. While set in the Victorian period, the play is more innovative than traditional: the cast perform physical sequences, and in places the dialogue is almost lyrical.
Carter’s play is a powerful appeal to an audience’s capacity for empathy. With its feminist undertones and scenes of emotional distress, it is unlikely that there is anyone who could fail to see a part of themselves in one of the characters. Bedlam is certainly a worthwhile watch.
Wrong Tree Theatre’s Bedlam is on 31st January, 1st and 2nd February, at 7:30pm in Hild Bede Chapel.