Tomorrow I was Always A Lion – Arcola Theatre, London

Writer: Vladimir Shcherban (based on the memoirs of Arnhild Lauveng)
Director: Vladimir Shcherban
Reviewer: Deborah Parry

One in four of us is currently suffering from a mental health condition and yet there is still a huge stigma attached to certain diagnoses – none more so than psychosis. Up until recently, the notion that schizophrenia could be cured was absolutely rejected by professionals, hope snatched away from those enduring it. What Tomorrow I was Always a Lion does is not only provide a voice of optimism, it also buries us in an experience of absolute terror.

tell-us-block_editedIt is difficult to imagine what it must truly be like to endure madness, to have reality blur with fiction, to not be able to distinguish which voices are real and which exist within your imagination – to encounter your worst fears and have them stare you in the face. And though no theatrical production is going to compare to the reality of this experience, Tomorrow I was Always a Lion does a remarkable job of bringing us close us enough to truly empathise. Based on a memoir by psychologist Arnhild Lauveng, who spent 10 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals starting in her teens, this play isn’t always easy to watch but is an important piece of drama.

Our journey starts with a woman descending into madness – her thoughts are jumping all over the place becoming more and more sinister until she enters ‘the forest’. And though this apt symbolism seems almost logical, it is actually representative of a place of little clarity – by this point, she is deeply immersed in psychosis and removed from the greater world because of it. As her thoughts become foggier – the cast around her are sat in silhouette and literally breathe smoke into the air, making the space cloudy and everything obscured, which – though seems an obvious choice of visual representation – is quite striking and is highly effective at communicating her mental state.

The ensemble then takes turns in playing different roles- the patient(s) – including the aforementioned woman, mental health professionals, various voices, which adds to the feeling of confusion. The images presented to us – the sounds, the unpredictability, immerse us in an unfamiliar world and it is seldom comfortable. Though there is some coherency in terms of narrative, what the play predominantly explores is the human experience and, as you might imagine, with a topic such as this – the result is that we are thrown about constantly.

There are moments of intense suffering- where you assume that the person must be unreachable and then we are introduced to a mental health nurse (also a student journalist) who manages to calm down patients by getting them to repeat the five elements of good news reporting; bringing some clarity to and centering those whose thoughts are racing. These points of connection, where there is so much disconnection remind us that it is possible to get it right – that institutionalising people doesn’t have to strip them of their dignity.

Costume and set design are kept to a minimum and makes way for a bold visual concept with constant symbolism and images presented on stage. At various points, cast members open a book (which contains a camera) and talk into it – we then see their faces on large screens about us, bringing us closer to their stories and experience. Later, pages are ripped apart and are thrown into the air, landing on the actors – looking like snow. It is all hugely striking and sound design is equally bold, adding to the symbolism and immersing us into a surreal and disturbing world.

Watching psychosis depicted on stage is, inevitably, going to be uncomfortable but what is remarkable about this production – the first by Belarus Free Theatre to be performed in English – is that it unapologetically makes us feel unsafe and yet does not alienate us from the content or make us entirely disconnect. It stands as a striking piece of art and also an important piece of educational, and perhaps, even political theatre, and yet never projects an air of self-righteousness or arrogance, making it successful on so many levels

Runs until 29 October 2016  | Image: Marilyn Kingwill

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