'YOU HAVE to have felt as much as we have to connect with us . . . this is all about feeling . . . 100 per cent,' pleads a young woman in the disturbing climax to Jeremy Weller's latest play, Mad, currently at the Leith Theatre. Mad is the final part of a trilogy which has involved the homeless (Glad, 1990), young offenders (Bad, 1991) and now women with a history of mental illness, telling their real-life stories.
In Mad, eight women who have suffered from some form of mental illness (including depression and the effects of child abuse and anorexia) recreate scenes from their past in the context of an audition. It is Weller's most controversial and arguably most harrowing piece to date, but he describes it as simply a continuation of his quest to understand human nature. 'With Glad, most of the people watching had never been homeless,' he points out. 'But with Mad everyone can take a bit of it and think 'It could have been me'.'
Along with the awards and prizes which Weller has accumulated so far, there has come a certain amount of criticism. Some of it was aimed at the dramatic structure of the plays, but more was concerned with whether Weller crashed through boundaries of acceptable taste on stage and the possible effect of this on his cast. 'A repetitive, destructive spiral from revelation into violence' is how Scotland on Sunday described Mad last week.
Anna Furse, artistic director of Paines Plough theatre company and author of Augustine (Big Hysteria), which explores the case history of a resident of the Salpetriere hospital in Paris during the 19th century, is one of Weller's most vocal critics. She delivered a crushing verdict in a piece she wrote last week. Her condemnation targeted most aspects of the play, concluding with 'We can only watch Mad as a 'spectacle of suffering' for that is virtually all it offers.'
Weller is well used to criticism - one of his first projects was a Macbeth with skinheads - yet he is still sensitive to the 'misconceptions' surrounding his work. His navy jumper (which he has worn since Glad and which is now one of the trademarks of his directing) looks a little threadbare, but Weller's enthusiasm for probing the human psyche has yet to wear thin. The tragic death of his sister a couple of years before Glad continues to drive him on in search of the reasons for life's horrors, and he appears puzzled at why anyone should question his motives. 'I'm finding out about life and human understanding, so why do I have to justify myself? Theatre should be a home of the truth . . . It allows a freedom where you can actually find things out about life.'
Weller defends the no-holds-barred picture which his cast paint on stage while admitting that this may not be theatre in the traditional sense. 'The cast are not really acting - they're re-creating. I think what upsets people about this kind of work is that I'm uncovering things about the way people live and what they do to each other. Theatre is not asked to do that any more. Mad is offensive to some people because coincidentally, not deliberately, I've touched on part of the life of the family. For most of the people in Mad their illness has been partially caused by or is part of being in a family. I want to ask about our human nature and the moral and spiritual development of our country. In a way my plays are anti-intellectual, all they are really is hammer blows for feelings that people are trying to release.'
Weller's powerful and often violent pieces have been described as therapy for the cast, offering nothing for the audience. But Weller himself sees the audience as an integral part of the whole process. 'There's a great deal of humility on the stage and human warmth being given to the audience. I want people to be broken down by what they see and then opened up.'
Weller is confident that his work is more accessible than traditional theatre. 'The failure of a lot of theatre is that it's too academic, addressing the head rather than the heart. It's becoming like the royal family - an outdated spectacle.'
It's this accessibility which leads Weller to conclude that 'real-life theatre' is the shape of things to come. But the use of real people, particularly those who have suffered in some way and are vulnerable, has not been universally welcomed. Weller, however, protests that he has never promised to change the way people live. 'I've never said that my aim was to recondition or redeem these people. I've always said that I'm doing it to tell the story of what they have lived through - with their co-operation and understanding of what I'm doing. From day one I told them what my aims were: to offer their experiences back to society and say, 'This is part of you - accept it or reject it.' '
Weller's current and previous casts, almost without exception, wholeheartedly support his projects. Carolyn, one of the eight women who bare their souls in Mad, had a breakdown three years ago after the collapse of her marriage and the loss of her job. She claims that the play is the best therapy she has ever had.
Jimmy Watson, one of the stars of Glad (which toured to Dublin, Paris and Berlin) and Bad, who said last year that he no longer had time for crime, is now back on the dole. He claims never to have suffered from illusions of a better life after Glad. 'It was the best time of my life but it's over now.' He considered drama school but found Shakespeare impenetrable. 'Remember,' says Watson, 'that I've never been to school. In Glad and Bad, we were acting out our lives. For my audition piece for acting college, I had to do a scene from Hamlet. I learned the words no bother, but I just couldn't act it.'
As for Weller, he wants to carry on doing what he's doing. He describes his experiences to date as 'a trial by fire', but hopes they will stand him in good stead for his future projects, which include working with aborigines and with terrorist groups in Northern Ireland. 'I have to keep pursuing the truth,' says Weller. 'You can't separate art from life and you can't separate the spiritual journey from the artistic journey.'
'Mad' is at the Leith Theatre, Ferry Road (031-226 5138) to 29 Aug.
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