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The Madness of Andrea Yates

Review by Peter Brown
11 May 2011

Depicting mental illness on the stage is no easy matter. But if we are to understand this condition, it's vital that drama can grasp the thorny nettle and lay it before the public. So, it's highly commendable that a theatre company - in this case, Cruel Theatre - should take up the gauntlet.

In this examination, they've chosen to focus on the immensely sad case of Andrea Yates who killed her five children by drowning them in 2001 after suffering from psychosis and post-partum depression for several years. Whenever children are the victims of any kind of crime, the subject becomes very difficult for audiences because we all have an in-built protective mechanism towards young children. So, I was already feeling nervous about this play before it began. However, the dramatic treatment here deals with the subject sensitively, without sacrificing reality.

Much of the dialogue has been taken from transcripts and documented quotes, so the narrative is authentic rather than being a lose, purely imaginative interpretation of events. A narrator fills in some of the background for us. There are a host of characters in the play including numerous doctors and specialists who were involved with Andrea's medical treatment. Essentially, Andrea believed that the devil was inside her and at one point she asserts that "only Governor Bush can destroy Satan".

The central characters here are Andrea Yates (played by Kathryn Lewin) and her husband, Russell (played by Thomas Woodards). Both are obsessed with religion and Russell, an engineer with NASA, wanted to have as many children as nature would allow. That might not have seemed quite so appealing to his wife and may well have been a contributing factor in her illness. Andrea is also plagued by voices and these are represented by characters.

There are moments in this play which are unnerving, even a little frightening. There's one particular instance when Andrea is brandishing a knife which is accompanied by scary music and is particularly effective, and I found some of the quotes from the bible almost as frightening. Kathryn Lewin is a child-like Andrea, smiling almost in bewilderment much of the time, distracted by her 'voices'. It's a moving, energetic and convincing performance, but I found the voices who distract and continually harass and handle her too repetitive, even if the continual torment was what was intended. Thomas Woodards has a difficult role to play as a somewhat clinical engineer. His obsession with religion clouds his grasp of reality and results in him telling us that he didn't think Andrea was a danger to his kids. I found his character a little bland and unsympathetic until his emotions got the better of him and he broke down in a moving and convincing manner. Ms Lewin and Mr Woodards are well-supported by the remainder of the cast - Ashleigh Fayers, Callum McGowan and Rosie Sales who play the voices in Andrea's head, as well as numerous other characters, including medical personnel and the like.

This is a short play, running at under an hour. That is no bad thing, given that much stage drama could easily lose 30 or more percent of the script and still tell the tale adequately and effectively. But here, the brevity of the play is combined with a pretty frantic pace - representing, I assume, the nature of the illness under scrutiny. Scenes follow each other without much of a pause, which doesn't give the audience time to digest and reflect on what they've witnessed. If the lights had dimmed between at least some of the scenes, the gear shifts would have been easier for the audience to handle and would also have provided that essential relief which audiences need to cope with difficult subjects. That doesn't negate the validity of director Taurie Kinoshita's decisions, which one can see have careful deliberations behind them.

What comes across strongly in this production is the commitment of both cast and director. Tackling such difficult subject matter and a high-profile case is a bold undertaking which in itself deserves recognition. According to the programme notes, this is the third 'incarnation' of this play. I suspect that it might, therefore, still be a work in progress. In any case, bringing important subjects to the attention of the public is an important function of drama and Cruel Theatre deserve applause for doing just that.

(Peter Brown)


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