Bedlam, Shakespeare's Globe, London
Unbalanced tale doesn't lose the plot
Monday 13 September 2010
At the original Globe Theatre, women weren't even allowed to act, let alone write the plays. And since its reincarnation in 1997, the new work programmed at the Bankside venue has all been by men. Four centuries of male monopoly are brought to an end now by Nell Leyshon and the premiere of Bedlam, an extravaganza that is set in a fictionalised version of Bethlem Hospital, the infamous insane asylum, in the middle of the 18th century.
Leyshon has previously been noted for delicately devastating small-scale pieces. With Bedlam, though, she goes for broke in the opposite direction, turning the Globe into a chaotic madhouse and filling it with slapstick energy and blackly gleeful exuberance. Indeed, the distressing (and conscientiously well-researched) material has been tailored almost to a fault to the theatre's unique environment. Watching Jessica Swale's rambunctious production, which is ebulliently performed by a delightful company, I was frequently assailed by a sense of incongruity: a play that deals with the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill is in constant danger of lapsing into an upbeat crowd-pleaser.
A case in point is the moment when a groundling (who looked to be a plant on press night) is dragged onstage and jokily threatened with a battery of the barbaric cures – leeches, laxatives, and bloodletting – that we have just seen inflicted on the patients at the asylum. It's pure genial pantomime and produces not a flicker of discomfort. Nor as spectators are we ever made to feel in a queasy kinship with the callous, voyeuristic visitors who cough up their penny to gawp at the inmates and poke at them with their sticks.
At the centre of the piece, there's a serious clash of philosophies. The asylum is run by Dr Carew (Jason Baughan), a corrupt, hard-drinking lecher who presides over a one-size-fits-all regime of cruel containment. He's challenged by the more enlightened newcomer, Dr Maynard (Phil Cheadle), who argues that you have to distinguish between the congenitally insane and people with temporary bouts of madness, caused by stress, who can respond to sensitive care.
The gin-sodden Hogarthian background is beautifully conveyed, with interludes in which we witness a band of former bedlamites earning their living on the London streets by singing (superb renditions of) wistful ballads and bawdy drinking songs of the period. But the debate about kinds of treatment is mostly worked out through a tangled plot that descends into a saucy, farcical sex-romp as various unsuitable males – including a foppish, misogynist poetaster (a hilarious Sam Crane) and a reliably ever-randy patient – vie to get their grubby paws on the russet-maned May (Rose Leslie), a lovely young farm girl who lost her wits when her lover was sent to sea.
With guards who are all too ready to be bribed, these shenanigans should underline the rottenness of a system that economically depended on exposing the vulnerable to the outside public. But the determined, high-spirited foolery has a sanitising, feelgood effect. As with the contents of those bedpans that are cheerily emptied over the punters in the yard, you can't quite believe that any of this is real.
To 1 October (020-7401 9919)
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 The confessions of men who ordered mail-order brides
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove