Theatre: Tales of ordinary madness

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Mark Rylance first took Shakespeare into Broadmoor, it revealed the Bard's understanding of the mind to be worthy of Freud himself. No wonder, says Glenda Cooper, the actors all decided it was time to see a psychiatrist (or two).

Sigmund, eat your heart out. Freud, the father of modern thinking about the mind was beaten to it by a Warwickshire playwright some 300 years earlier. It seems, after all, the play's the thing.

Last Sunday Mark Rylance, artistic director of London's Globe Theatre, presented extracts from Shakespeare to an audience of mental health experts to show that the Bard was a "therapeutic prompter" whose work pre-dates many of the discoveries that we now take for granted about the mind.

Looking for a case study of morbid jealousy evinced in a desire for visual confirmation of the other's guilt? Try Othello: "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore / Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof".

Or for the fascination often found in mental illness with elaborate word- play and metaphor? Then turn to Hamlet's conversations with Polonius following the nunnery scene. "Though this be madness yet there's method in't," Polonius comments.

Or for a good example of transference in therapy, where meaning can be played with and understood, again turn to Hamlet and the Mousetrap, the play-within-a-play wherein Claudius is stirred by the resemblance between the fictional action of the players and his own dark deeds.

"Shakespeare shared with Freud a great interest in the more elusive processes of our thoughts," says Professor Alice Theilgaard, co-author of Shakespeare as Prompter. "In virtually all his plays he shows us avenues to the deeper levels of mind, adopting dimensions from highly conscious abstract thinking and reflection, to concrete everyday considerations via poetic imagery, to dreams, as `the royal road to the unconscious'."

Rylance and his actors were appearing at a conference organised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to explain the work they have done at Broadmoor Special Hospital. An experimental programme began there in 1989 after Rylance had met the late Dr Murray Cox, consultant psychotherapist and the other co-author of Shakespeare as Prompter.

Since then Rylance has performed Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth at the hospital (he plans to return with a comedy next time) with what he says are powerful and unexpected results.

"They found a lot of humour in Macbeth and they thought the Fool was the most rational person in King Lear," says Rylance, who took workshops with the patients afterwards.

Perhaps the most surprising reaction was to Hamlet. "We thought Hamlet killing Polonius was going to be the most difficult thing. No weapon had been taken into the hospital before in this way," says Claire van Kampen, the director. "But when we got to the discussion groups, that was not what we talked about - it was Ophelia. Their main concern had been Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship, and Ophelia's relationship with her father."

One of the most meaningful moments for Rylance was when they invited patients to take part in the graveyard scene of Hamlet and he said the line: "I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers with their quantity of love could not make up my sum." Rylance had always felt slightly embarrassed about the line, as Hamlet has been at least in part responsible for Ophelia's death. At this point a patient said: "I believe you." "It shook me,"says Rylance. "I realised how much I had needed to hear someone say that."

Taking plays that involve murders, doomed love, treachery and highly dysfunctional families to a place where violent patients have been locked up for their actions might seem dangerous. "There was immediate shock as to what the implications might be for certain people," says Rylance. "But, looking back, they had such inquiring minds. It was a very fertile place."

He compares Shakespeare to homeopathy, which treats like with like. While a homeopath may treat a patient with arsenic to stimulate the healing process, Shakespeare does the same by forcing the person to confront himself.

At the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Sunday the actors performed two scenes from Hamlet - the nunnery scene and the soliloquy "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I", as well as the sleepwalking scene from Macbeth. Admitting to being nervous ("It's a daunting audience for a professional schizophrenic"), Rylance played a Hamlet in regulation pyjamas and holed socks, who looked - and sounded - as if he could have just stepped out of one of the old Victorian asylums. This was balanced perfectly by William Russell's besuited Polonius, whose patronising manner was captured by talking at Hamlet rather than to him, smiling encouragingly, then fixedly when Hamlet's word-play became too much. Watching this scene and the ones that followed, one was struck again at just how fascinated Shakespeare was with the concept of madness and reality - shown again later in the play when Hamlet muses that the crimes he has committed took place while he was mad and not himself: "Then Hamlet does it not; Hamlet denies it / Who does it then? His madness."

But perhaps the scene that the psychiatrists enjoyed most was Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, not just because of Belinda Davison's accurate portrayal of guilt manifested, but also because of its inclusion of those few lines for "a doctor of physic" - a forerunner, explained Rylance, of today's therapists. The biggest - if most rueful - laugh of the evening was reserved for the doctor's line: "This disease is beyond my practice."

Some things never change.