Bedlam is not a comfortable piece, but it strikes a careful balance between horrific and empathetic as it explores treatment inside the country’s most famous asylum. Right from the beginning, it plunges into the mistreatments that have befallen inmates throughout the hospital’s history. With references to the Dr Munroes – who were elected physicians for 125 years until the 1850s – and electroshock therapy that was not brought in until the 1930s, the company spans the centuries to show the timeless tragedies of those who were imprisoned there.
We meet the three newest patients: Mathew, who has fallen through grief into depression and is confined for ‘melancholy’; Johnathon, sent away for the ‘sexual perversion’ of nothing more than being asexual; and Nelly, who is diagnosed as hysterical simply because she is a woman with opinions. We see them registered, stripped and scrubbed, before these sorry few join the 300 inmates locked up and ‘treated’ at The Bethlehem Royal Hospital.
Bells to wake up. Bells to go to sleep. A day of routine familiarity: take pills, exercise, free time, more bells. The treatments aim to make the patients forget the outside world – to become compliant, docile, easier to manage and display; for no one who works there knows how to make the patients better, even if they wanted to. The routine continues: awake, asleep, awake to a new day – though the staging of the sleep scenes does suffer from there being no rake to the seating, and no raised stage.
The depictions of the treatments are shocking, but not ghoulish, with the actors’ performances pitched to convey just how frightening it must have been. Clever use of coloured paints emphasise the patients’ loss of their humanity and identity, as they become more and more the sum of the harm the ‘treatments’ cause. This is in contrast to the audience experience where, as they are beaten down, we build a clearer picture of each individual.
‘You think they’re human, but they’re not. They’ve lost what humanity they had.’ It’s a shocking comment, but the doctor who makes it stole that humanity from them – justifying his mistreatment and abuse of them by this distancing. The nurse who attempts to change things is met with threats of dismissal.
Bedlam is a well-crafted and emotive piece that not only highlights some of the darker parts of medical history, but reminds us what can happen when people are othered and stripped of their humanity in institutions. It is hard to watch, but well worth it.
Note: Though there is a level of abstraction to the depictions it could still be triggering to certain survivors, particularly in the treatment of female patients.