Arcola Theatre, London (****)
Schizophrenia remains one of the great mental health taboos. With nearly one in five likely to be affected by mental health issues in the UK, schizophrenia is still the one that can cause the greatest distress to the sufferer and those around them.
Yet Belarus Free Theatre’s Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion manages, whilst with typical visceral physicality reminding us of its horrors, to emerge with hope not only restored but felt.
Belarus director, Vladimir Shcherban has based his piece on the memoir of Norwegian psychologist and writer Arnhild Lauveng’s own descent into the `red forest’ of schizophrenia and her `recovery’ or at least learning to live, successfully, with it.
That much shines through Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion which Shcherban says was also in part inspired – and one senses dedicated to though not expressly – by Sarah Kane’s play 4:48 Psychosis, a play that moved Shcherban deeply, started to rehearse and caused his banning. For Shcherban, her early death by suicide at exactly the same time turned her suffering into art.
Unusually for Belarus, Shcherban’s production is performed entirely by British actors and a cast of five. Each takes turn to become `the patient’, the one who gradually realises her experience and her sensory perceptions are undergoing distortion and change, who then enters the `mental health’ system, is subjected to various forms of `treatment’, is preyed upon by visions of terror and amazingly, through her decision to `live’ and the support of one social worker giving her the courage to believe in herself, emerges back into the world.
Running in at only 75 minutes, it’s a traumatic if cathartic journey for performer and audience alike.
Yet as well as the harsh physical endurance he puts his cast through – running on the spot, the naked dunking in a cold bath for one cast member, accompanied by repetitive hand slapping – Shcherban has a fantastic way with objectifying random elements to create a symbolic, distancing moment: china cups on a trolley for family expectations, smoke puffed out for the fog of irrationality, books piled onto the head of Emily Houghton indicating psychiatric authority.
Houghton is extraordinary, a young actor of outstanding presence whose unnervingly precise description of the beginnings of her disease sets the performance tone. But the same ferocity and physicality could also be said of all of the cast – Oliver Bennett, Samantha Pearl, Alex Robertson and not least Grace Andrews, subjecting and exposing herself to the harshest of wet batterings.
At the end, the sense of hope is palpable. In response to Kane’s `I sing without hope on the boundary’ from 4:48 Psychosis, inscribed on the front of the Belarus programme, Lauveng’s answer is: `Hope should always be allowed, no matter if you are ill or not’. Tomorrow, she will always be a lion…
Review first published on this website, Oct 25, 2016
Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion
Based on the memoir by Arnhild Lauveng
Stage version by Vladimir Shcherban
Additional editing by Maryia Bialkovich
Directed by: Vladimir Shcherban
Set & Costume Designer: Alex Shyrnevich
Lighting & Video Designer: Iain Syme
Sound Designer: Robert Martland
Translator: Sasha Padziarei
Presented by Belarus Free Theatre
World premiere of Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion, Arcola Theatre, London, Oct 19, 2016