Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Theatre review: The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies

The psychiatrist RD Laing's theories were a major influence on Equus, so I was interested in seeing a play about the man himself. Laing's work is now widely discredited but Patrick Marmion's The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies takes place in 1970, when Ronnie Laing (Alan Cox) is in his prime: A minor celebrity thanks to regular appearances on BBC2, and running his own mental institution-cum-hippie commune, The Philadelphia Association. There the line between doctors and patients is hard to see: Aaron (Kevin McMonagle) is his long-standing colleague and the sensible balance to Laing's excess; also there is the intermittently American psychiatrist Joe (James Russell,) and Mary (Laura-Kate Gordon,) the resident nurse, who may or may not have got over her coprophilia. But Laing seems to identify most with David (Oscar Pearce,) a South African with a voracious appetite for drink and drugs, who has to be kept in a medically-induced coma much of the time.

Reacting to a culture that lobotomised or drugged the mentally ill into submission, Laing's thinking has taken him to the opposite extreme. He views madness as a coping strategy rather than an illness, and his response is essentially to let the lunatics take over the asylum.

This has made him a lot of enemies though; the landlord of the local pub is complaining about the residents being let out to terrorise his clientele, while the Philadelphia Association are about to be kicked out of their premises. Aaron is the bearer of this bad news, but he also has his own reservations about whether what they're doing is actually helping anyone.

The cast list is at great pains to tell us that Marmion's story is entirely fictional; as well as a "please don't sue" disclaimer paragraph, next to the cast listing for Ulrike (Amiera Darwish) is a further clarification that Ronnie's pregnant girlfriend is invented for the purposes of the play. And it's obvious this isn't quite gritty realism as much of the story takes place inside an acid trip Laing takes with David. The latter returns from a trip to 2015 to bring news of how they'll both die, as well as of the fact that future generations are physically unable to look away from their phones; he said this just as a woman on my row was checking her Facebook, so QED. At least she wasn't as big a cunt as her hipster friend, who didn't even show up until the second act then spent it chatting, jangling his keys, looking through his bag, checking his phone and taking photos. Then he whooped and hollered at the curtain call as if he'd paid the slightest bit of fucking attention to anything the actors had been doing. Except for when Cox did a headstand, he noticed that. And took a photo, OBVIOUSLY*.

At least he wasn't spoiling a particularly good show, Marmion's play being a mass of ideas that director Michael Kingsbury struggles to pull together into a coherent whole. What the playwright's really trying to do only becomes apparent in a second-act scene where Laing himself takes his own acid trip to the future, meeting an alternate version of himself (McMonagle) who'd accepted the flaws in his theories and gone on to become much more successful than the real one did. The subtitle The Two Ronnies gives the clue that this is where the play's heart lies, but the way it gets to it isn't particularly satisfying. (Also, if you've gone to the trouble of building a special effect, it might be better to subtly direct the audience's eyes to it just before it explodes, rather than just after. Then you might get the response "that was cool," rather than "that was cool. I would imagine.")

The Divided Laing, or, The Two Ronnies by Patrick Marmion is booking until the 12th of December at Arcola Studio 1.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

*Not even surreptitiously, he kept lifting his phone high above his head, so whoever was sitting behind him probably saw half the show through his viewfinder. Maybe he was holding his hands high to make sure everyone saw his bright red painted nails and appreciated his special snowflakeyness. Pickle, I was wearing nail polish 15 years ago and I've never been cool, so you need to make more of an effort than that. Especially in Dalston, where you have near-fatal levels of hipsteriness to compete with.

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