When ‘going slightly mad’ - an original piece of writing and performance from 4th year Edinburgh student Michael Hajiantonis - initially premiered in October at Bedlam Theatre for a tight two-show run, it was the recipient of enormous amounts of praise from both theatregoers and reviewers. Watching it be revived for one night only as part Edinburgh University Theatre Company’s annual mini theatre festival, ‘Bedfast’, it was apparent that the admiration of the show was richly deserved, thanks to its rare double achievement of not only tackling the taboos surrounding sectioning in this country, but doing so with a warm-hearted vigour that ultimately treated its characters with kindness. Loosely derived from real life experiences, it is actually the sequences within the play that move away from realistic portrayals where a true sense of the way that main character Max -who has been sectioned for the first time due to the onset of powerful delusions - feels is truly shown. The solidly choreographed ensemble moments, complete with strumming music and lighting, after Max is heavily sedated for the first time pull the audience into her psyche. It only needs the extraordinary qualities of Lizzie Lewis’ wide eyed grimaces to be a completely arresting portrayal of the cruelty inflicted on body and mind by an extended stay within a psychiatric ward where the sympathies of the various doctors, played in dual roles by members of the cast, are subject to differ.
The relentless nature of the set pieces showing Max drowning under the weight of strong medication, losing days at a time, makes the quieter moments between her and the other residents of the ward all the more poignant. On the threadbare armchairs of their communal space, constantly referred to as stiflingly hot, in a ward where they are meant to spend a transitory period of time but, instead, thanks to a lack of NHS beds, are unable to be moved from, there is a true sense in the writing and the actors representation that these are people who ultimately - like everyone - want to help themselves and each other the best they can. Portrayals of mental illness on stage often consume the person within them, but this production, it seems, wants to reverse that. There is no shying away from the fact that all four of the patients depicted are, at the time of their depiction, engaged in a unceasing fight with illnesses that have no remorse; Max is at one point reliably and blithely informed of her likelihood of developing depression after her initial stay in Ladywell. However, they and the audience also never lose sight of themselves as individuals in those moments, such as a dance scene with real instruments that the actors clearly relish having the chance to undertake, that provide the humour in the loosely structured play. As the character Anna at one point details, in one of many scenes that can only be summarised as containing fighting, beating spirit, their illnesses - in her case, bipolar disorder - are an integral part of them, but should be viewed as a part of them in the same way as her ‘ingrown toenail and Biology MA’, rather than swallowing the person and character whole.