The Divided Laing – Or The Two Ronnies

Arcola Theatre, London (****)

© Adam Bennett

© Adam Bennett

Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Patrick Marmion, erstwhile theatre critic turned play and screen-writer has produced a hugely enjoyable, anarchic, 1970s type anti-capitalist blast for today built around R D Laing, the controversial Scottish psychiatrist.

I should confess a special interest. My father was a psychiatrist. And in later years, on reading Laing’s The Divided Self, practically had his own breakdown, considering his life’s work had been totally wrong.

Marmion has taken Laing’s reputation as a latter-day acid head but undeniable visionary and given us a reminder of his contribution with a trip akin to shaking hands with a re-incarnated Joe Orton and the late, much lamented Snoo Wilson – crazed, surreal and often very funny. Was he angel or devil?

© Adam Bennett

© Adam Bennett

On a fictional day in the life of Kingsley Hall, the unit Laing created in East London, we go back and forth in time, alongside alter egos, figments of Laing’s fevered imagination, fantasies and dreams with Alan Cox’s charismatic, yogic Laing keeping the powers of reaction just about at bay and encouraging the distressed to live out their pain. Reacting against medicalisation, stressing the authentic behaviour of the mentally ill, schizophrenia particularly for Laing, was not a medical condition but a coping mechanism for those `finding it hard to cope with what is in front of them’.

© Adam Bennett

© Adam Bennett

But maybe the guru did protest too much, Marmion seems wittily to be saying. Through this recreated whirling madhouse of self-delusion, Marmion shows the circus-master himself in schizophrenic meltdown, seduced by celebrity, assailed by outraged locals, inner and family demons and ultimately faced by his divided self showing him how if he’d played the establishment game, he might have become a pillar of the establishment.

© Adam Bennett

© Adam Bennett

As it is, in a wild, unbridled and wonderfully lubricious speech by fellow psychiatric rebel, South African David Cooper, Cooper and Laing stare into a future in which both will die comparatively young and the medical sedation to which the mentally ill are subjected is harnessed as a brilliant metaphor for today’s zombified consumerist, mobile phone addicted world.

`Blessed are the losers,’ invokes Laing with some irony and pathos. Long live the resisters.

The Divided Laing (Or The Two Ronnies) runs at the Arcola Theatre to Dec 12, 2015

The Divided Laing is produced by Cabinet of Cynics and Stepping Out Theatre in association with the Arcola Theatre.

Review first published in Reviewsgate, Nov 2015