Leaving the Ward

JAMES MACNAMARA discusses a piece that contains some remarkable theatre, but ultimately undermines awareness of what madness really is.

Cambridge Corpus Playroom leaving the ward Theatre

Corpus Playroom, 9.30pm, Tue 5th – Sat 9th March, £6/£5

written and directed by Maria Pawlikowska


Raising awareness of mental health needs this as its cornerstone. Truth, facts, debunking, challenging, revealing. Art about mental health is difficult. It tends to perpetuate the mythology of madness – the rocking chair, the white walls of an institution, the screaming, the manipulative practitioner – feeding an understanding of mental illness that can never get at its reality, continuing its status as other, as alien, a thing to carefully avoid.

Firstly, Maria Pawlikowska and her cast have created a remarkable piece of drama in Leaving the Ward. The unusual process is visible and, almost uniquely in my experience, is the centre of a dramatic intensity rather than a vaguely interesting thing tacked on to a story that only distracts from its coming to life. I’ve written about devised theatre before: here it results in an intimacy, a comfort with the text that is rare and invigorating. It is clear that all the actors have a stake in what they are saying, how they are moving, how they are relating with each other; they have been part of the artistic process in a way that allows them to really live through this fiction – this sense of witnessing people feeling, rather than acting, is special; an achievement that deserves enthusiastic recognition.

But there are others things to be recognised. White walls, white floor, a round table, a single white bed in the corner. The set is the embodiment of the mythologised institution, straight from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When three of the characters begin to play cards, the cliché is realised. The conversations as they do so, tipping from teasing to physical violence convincingly and engagingly, are nonetheless underwritten by common tropes: the dominant one, the broken one, the aggressive one. This is Hollywood madness, and whilst it creates some excellent drama, it continues to fuel the myth.

The relationship between the protagonist Georgia and her therapist Dr Cohen is engaging, but it also relies on previous narratives of institutionalised madness that no longer have a legitimate place in the kinds of discussions the play is involved in. The satire of the depression questionnaire – one that I have taken myself several times – is amusing, but ultimately inaccurate. The thing about that questionnaire is its incongruous simplicity; it’s not obtuse or convoluted. And I’ve never had experience of a doctor treating me like a child; Georgia in this play is an adolescent, perhaps in need of a heavier hand, but there is a disservice being paid here to a class of individuals who, in the majority, know what they’re doing, know the science behind the behaviours. That psychiatrists are manipulative or useless is another part of the mythology that needs to be undermined. And the suggestion that Georgia is suffering from depression (what kind of depression?) is also misleading; her behaviour indicates different pathologies, and these things need to be clarified.

The elements that I am highlighting are not malicious, or even inept, but they are easily forgotten among some of the best performances of the year. Ellen Robertson’s Georgia is remarkable: mischeivous, witty, charming, completely believable and compelling. She is the Jack Nicholson of this piece. Her scenes with Freddie Sawyer’s Ewan are especially nuanced and energetic; when she catches his eye there is something tangible, something that makes you want to be there, in a real place, talking to them, laughing with them.

The whole cast is excellent, and they occupy a sparkling dramatic atmosphere resulting from a process that is tried often, but almost always results in something soft, centreless and unnecessary. Much of Leaving the Ward is a tour de force, but its themes are important to me, and their use must be interrogated. The three stars above don’t mean much – go and see it, enjoy some exceptional drama; but think about the problems inherent in depicting madness through art, and how difficult it is not to perpetuate the myth. Leaving the Ward does so, despite its unique dramatic achievements.