The fascinating story of Dr William Chester Minor has been well recounted by Simon Winchester in his book The Surgeon of Crowthorne. The dramatist Steve Hennessy now finds arresting patterns in this man's predicament in Wilderness, the second of a double-bill of thematically linked plays entitled Lullabies of Broadmoor, both of which are set in the "Gentlemen's block" wing of the prison and focus on murderers who have been judged criminally insane.
Powerfully performed, in Catriona McLaughlin's absorbing and atmospheric production, by the same set of actors, the dramas are like distorted images of each other, as they juggle with issues such as responsibility and redemption and the relationship between illegitimate individual acts of murder and publicly sanctioned mass killing. The result is a piquant mix of witty Gothic ghoulishness and serious moral questioning.
A surgeon in the Union army during the American Civil War, Dr Minor was to spend 38 years in Broadmoor, after shooting dead an innocent Lambeth furnace stoker, George Merrett, in 1872 under the delusion that he was there to persecute him. During his incarceration, this learned man became a copious contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The cruel contrast between the precision of his lexicography and the appalling mess of his demon-driven psychological life is skillfully pointed up in Hennessy's play, which shows us how Minor (excellently played by Chris Courtenay) was affected by visits from Eliza (Natalie Hobday), his victim's wife and the mother of seven children, and by visitations from the dead man's ghost.
If the ironies of the situation are spelt out a bit too insistently, the play - set in Minor's donnish study at Broadmoor - casts a haunting spell as it weaves together lurid fantasy and harsh reality and draws us into Minor's deeply troubled past.
Minor's paranoid conviction that he is being pursued by retributive Fenians who force him to do unspeakable acts of licentiousness originated from his having to brand the cheek of one of their number who had deserted from the union army.
A joyous childhood in Ceylon had given Minor an almost prelapsarian sense of sexual permissiveness, which ended grotesquely when an Irishman picked up the 13-year-old on a beach and showed Minor "the meaning of helplessness".
Without lapsing into simple sensationalism, the play gives you access to the troubled soul of a man who was so desperate to be a better person that he even went to the lengths of cutting off his own penis.
In The Murder Club - the first play in the double bill - Hennessy gives us the tale of two real-life murderers (Ronald True and Richard Prince) who committed their crimes in 1922, when Britain was using poison gas in Iraq. True - a con-man toff whose effeminate bogusness is beautifully communicated by Andrew Michell - asks why he, at such a time, is "supposed to break my heart over some poxy little tart in the Finborough Road?" The ghost of that butchered prostitute (Charlotte Pyke) is the mistress of ceremonies in a tricksy, witty and unresolvable piece.
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