Schizophrenia is regarded as an incurable disease – once diagnosed, even if a person is able to lead a normal life, the medical community always considers them ill. Norwegian psychologist and PhD candidate Arnhild Lauveng defied this expectation; after a decade of living with Schizophrenia and a lengthy recovery, she was finally declared healthy. Her first of eleven books is a biography that documents life with her illness and the relentless drive that eventually made her well. Belarus Free Theatre brings this story of despair and hope off the page through outstanding storytelling and intense sensory stimuli, providing a voice for one woman trapped by mental illness in a world unwilling to accept medical miracles.
We meet Arnhild as a child who gradually loses her sense of self in a world that resembles a Picasso painting. Though her world may be colourful, it is also populated by sinister people. The first one she meets is simply called The Captain, a nasty piece of work that eventually leads to her years of hospitalisation.
Rather than one actor playing Arnhild, the ensemble of five each take turns telling her story. Through this device, she becomes not just one person, but the one in four people who suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. Arnhild’s story is a remarkable one of recovery, but also an everywoman representing 25% of the UK population. In and around the narration of her time in a mental health facility, shrill noises, confetti, water and striking projections uncomfortably bombard the audience with the experience of Scizophrenia.
Vladimir Shcherban’s adaptation is honest, moving and provocative. Though not as aggressively propagandist as their recent Burning Doors, Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion fosters an active understanding of life with severe mental illness and the systems in place that counteract recovery. Even though Arnhild is very much a victim, she is also a fighter with a distinctive voice who portrays her experiences with clarity and pathos. Scenes are short and episodic, often dreamlike and unreal. The format effectively conveys the lengthy time period without becoming tedious, and captures the ups and downs of the treatment and recovery process.
There is an element of criticism of the healthcare system, particularly the type of restraint used with vulnerable patients. Though BFT’s signature activism theatre is underplayed here in favour of Arnhild’s story. Her story is an excellent one, but the activism is often lost within the narrative.
Though the staging tends towards simple, it allows the power of the story to shine through and the moments of physical discomfort to foster empathy. This is a sophisticated, sensitive piece of theatre that, whilst raising awareness, tells a wonderful story.
Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion runs through 12 November.
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