Last up in the 2010 Kings and Rogues' season at Shakespeare's Globe is this new work about the famous, or infamous, Bethlem Hospital, better known to many as 'Bedlam'. This institution has been caring for the mentally ill for centuries, and has gone through numerous incarnations, the latest being an exemplary, world class hospital which, among other treatments, uses arts therapy to help patients towards recovery. But the hospital wasn't always so enlightened in its attitude towards mental illness, hence its notoriety.
Essentially, insanity is an interesting, if not a compelling subject to put under the microscope. And Shakespeare's Globe is arguably the perfect space in which to produce historical works, so there was every reason to expect this season's finale would be something rather special. And so it proved to be, though not in the way I expected.
There are two main strands to this confusing tale. The first revolves around the doctor in charge of the hospital and his own descent into drunkenness and madness. The other concentrates on a poet who, in spite of being as camp as Christmas, claims to be in love with a young woman incarcerated in the hospital. I have no idea what the connection is between these two scenarios, or what they were meant to convey.
Writer Nell Leyshon did extensive research for her new play, including working with staff at the current hospital, now called the Bethlem Royal Hospital situated in Beckenham. But the research may not really have helped Ms Leyshon very much because she seems to have decided that it was a case of 'all or nothing', so gin drinking and the South Sea Bubble are mixed with events at the hospital like some gut-wrenching, exotic cocktail gone dreadfully wrong. The trouble is that there's too much information which distracts us from understanding what's actually happening in the hospital itself. And the knock-on effect is that we never really get to care about the characters or their situations because the focus is on humour rather than the psychological nature of madness. There are, however, plenty of references to the gory treatments used at Bedlam in the eighteenth century - bleeding, blistering, leeches and the like – and one unfortunate audience member in the yard was hauled-up to the stage to be given the admissions treatment including laxative. Oh dear!
With songs peppered throughout the show, this is more a musical than a play. And the style of trombone playing at the start of the second half is a clear indication that it's a farcical comedy which, frankly, isn't very funny. The attempts at humour mostly emanate from camp characterisations or bawdy jests, worthy of a poor 'Carry On' film. In fact, 'Carry On Bedlam' would have been a more apt title because it has all the hallmarks of the later films from that series, and some of the characters would have suited many of the Carry On stars, eg Hattie Jaques, Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey et al. I half-expected to hear Kenneth Williams's wonderful line “Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me”. But nothing nearly so eloquent was forthcoming. I'm a great fan of the Globe's work, and I admire the fact that they are prepared to take risks. However, this is one gamble that just doesn't pay off. For the most part, I found it tediously juvenile and irritatingly long. To be scrupulously fair, the audience laughed quite a lot, which certainly surprised me, though they were noticeably more subdued in the second half. But they also moaned and winced at several misogynistic comments, which border on the offensive even if they are historically pertinent.
With a weak plot, weak dialogue and weak direction, this play really ought to be closed in a week. And, if the director and producer of the Carry Ons were still producing, I can't imagine for a moment that they would give it more than a cursory thought, let alone slate it for production. In essence, this ill-conceived piece of theatrical nonsense has a naïve, end-of-term quality to it, but I would doubt that it would cut the mustard even as a school production. It is, quite simply, dire and a hugely disappointing end to what otherwise has been an impressive and commendable season at the Globe.
"Nell Leyshon’s sprawling play...pulls in too many directions...The action remains at the level of busy spectacle without a strong story to draw you in."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail
"It’s chaotic, rambunctious and at times saucily amusing...Problems lie in the material...there’s little to engage us closely"
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"The play is sometimes a little maddening itself, as it loses its narrative drive in an over-eagerness to populate it with too many characters."
Mark Shenton for The Stage