Sponsored by the University of Edinburgh’s English Literature Department, The Mary Barnes Project has put on an entertaining and intriguing performance of David Edgar’s eclectic script, written in 1979. About the time artist and writer Mary Barnes spent in the psychotheraputic centre, Kingsley Hall, the play was performed in Edinburgh for the first time this week. Kingsley Hall was a community of psychiatrists and patients that aimed to create a community for the mentally ill and help them gain stability without the excessive medication and other unpleasant practices employed by other psychiatric hospitals at the time.
Revolving around the centre in East London, which was home to a wonderful variety of people, one of the play’s strongest elements was the bounty of different characters. One of the most fascinating things to watch were the differences in the way in which those with mental illnesses and those without were portrayed. In the first act the only patient we see is Mary herself, setting up a clear contrast between her and the psychiatrists. The dinner table scenes particularly highlighted the distinction between the characters in the house, especially in the second act with the addition of the second patient, Ren, touchingly played by Maddie Flint.
The show never lost the audience’s attention covering a range of themes; including mental illness, social and political unrest in the sixties, Catholicism and the defining of community. The constant turnover of characters also kept the audience on their feet, albeit sometimes too much as things occasionally became unclear. The actors all deserve praise though for creating a very natural and interesting group of people to watch. Particularly notable was Jess Haygarth’s, Brenda, which was refreshingly simple and sincere.
The most interesting relationship was that between Eddie and Mary, which Rufus Love and Caitlin McLean had a lot of fun with, as did the audience. Their physical theatre, spitting milk in each other’s faces and wrestling as they pretended to be wild animals, was incredibly engaging. The strongest performance was undoubtedly from Caitlin McLean, as Mary herself. Managing to portray the character’s schizophrenia in a comprehensive yet respectful manner, her presentation of Mary was consistent and often brave. She also pulled off successfully the challenge of showing different stages in mental health, and the healing process, as the play went on.
The lighting was simple but effective and the sound was mostly strong. A five-minute interval of projection was used to break up the second and third acts which were both after the interval. The decision to put the interval so early could possibly have been reconsidered, as audience members are not often prepared for the second half to be longer than the first and by the end it felt quite extensive.
Probably the largest credit should go to the project’s Artistic Director Yvonne Zhang as the set was the highlight of the piece. So much was done with the space, and though slightly crowded it perfectly reflected and added to the deliciously chaotic feel of the script. It involved a wide array of furniture to give the impression of a living room, dining room and study as well as a raised platform that could be curtained off, which was Mary’s bedroom. The use of the different levels to show separate rooms and floors and very realistic set dressing gave a great impression of the house as a genuine home and community.
There were problems with pace at points, particularly in the shorter scenes, and the nature of the script seemed to make the energy levels difficult to balance with the natural speech. The lengthy set changes were occasionally quite disruptive to the narrative, but it seemed worth it for the visual richness of the set and costumes.
Overall the production raised some very thought-provoking questions, was great to look at and was always interesting. All proceeds from the project are being donated to the Scottish Mental Health Association and a local Edinburgh based charity Health in Mind, so it is a pleasure to say that the run sold out.