Mademoiselle F – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Vanessa Oakes

Director: Mark Evans

At the age of 18, a young girl, who became known in the literature as Mademoiselle F, left her aunt’s house. She became convinced that she had taken something from the house and checked her clothing and possessions for it, finding nothing. But the fixation that she had taken something and that she had to find it remained and a regime of checking for an item continued and escalated. Her case was documented by her physician, Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol and hers became the first condition to be ascribed to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Esquirol was to become well known as a psychiatrist and instituted a program of reform in the treatment of those with ‘insanity’, a program that spoke of specialist treatment and that crucially suggested that “a lunatic hospital is an instrument of cure.”

In Mademoiselle F, writer Vanessa Oakes imagines her in a room in what was to become known as the Esquirol Hospital in Paris. As we enter, her world is starkly laid out with white tape on a largely bare stage. Discordant, arrhythmic music plays as she repeatedly removes and replaces her stockings to check inside them, and to check her toes. It’s already quite disturbing as she seems to have no control over the compulsion that drives her to check, check and check again. As the lights dim, a man in what appear to be hospital scrubs joins her and they engage in conversation.

This character, played by Tyrone Huggins, is something of a puzzle. Sometimes he appears to be a member of medical staff, advising Mademoiselle and giving medication; sometimes he appears to be a projection of her own mind, appearing to her as a Canadian polar bear who regales her with stories about his time in the zoo. In his guise as a polar bear, he draws parallels between the treatment of zoo animals – being kept in small enclosures away from their natural habitat which often leads the animals to unusual, obsessive behaviours – and Mademoiselle’s own situation, in a prison of her own making. At other times, he appears to be a visitor from the unimaginable future – our present – and warns Mademoiselle about the environmental impact mankind and our 21st-century lifestyle has, bringing the plight of wild polar bears into focus as the ice which forms their natural habitat retreats and forces them into unnatural behaviours. And he discusses the need for rare metals in smartphones and the compulsive checking for notifications – another self-made prison with obvious parallels with Mademoiselle’s situation.

Mademoiselle is played by Miriam Edwards, who totally inhabits the persona of Mademoiselle F. Her mood varies between despair and hope, rationality and her obsessive needs. She shows us the vulnerability of her character even as she tries to understand her condition. We see most of the proceedings through her eyes, and Edwards helps us to understand Mademoiselle’s point of view, irrational as it seems. We can absolutely see her logic in, for example, lying to staff that she is better today in order to avoid leaving her own space. Edwards provides a masterclass in acting.

Huggins makes the bear a reasonable presence, one that appears only when required by Mademoiselle. He too totally inhabits his characters bringing reassurance to Mademoiselle. But he too gets distressed – and it is indeed distressing to watch – as he discusses and reacts to the plight of wild bears as compared to that of bears in captivity.

Director Mark Evans has ensured the whole is simply staged and lit, adding to the impact of the words of Mademoiselle and the bear. However, the bear’s railing against modern life, zoos and the impact of man on the environment, while clearly sober and pertinent issues to today’s audience, can feel shoe-horned into this period piece as he tells her what is to be. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that when acting as a projection of Mademoiselle’s own confused thought processes and desire to be cured, no matter how deeply hidden, Oakes’ writing gives us true insight and food for thought.

Runs Until 8 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Food for thought

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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