This review was originally written for West End Frame
Kingsley Hall in London’s East End must have been an interesting place in the late 1960s. It was there that Dr R D Laing established a commune-like psychiatric facility that rejected contemporary treatments of the mentally ill in favour of a more radical, more humane approach. Instead of electric shocks, insulin comas and lobotomisation, Laing wanted to provide a place where people were “free to explore their psychic being unhindered” or, in layman’s terms, “free to flip out and go crazy”.
At least, that is what Laing professes to want in David Marmion’s new play, The Divided Laing (the title is a play on Laing’s celebrated 1960 publication The Divided Self), which is currently running at Hackney’s Arcola Theatre. A freewheeling, entirely fictional account of Laing’s final night in Kingsley Hall in 1970, The Divided Laing is an imaginative and illuminating journey into the mind of one of the world’s most influential psychiatrists.
A five-strong chorus introduces Laing (Alan Cox) as he returns to Kingsley Hall after a lengthy absence only to be confronted by eviction from his landlord, outrage from his neighbours, threats of being struck off by the authorities, and, to top it all off, his esteemed colleague lying comatose on the roof after a sex-induced hallucinogenic trip into the future. Things, it becomes apparent, are beginning to fall apart.
Cox plays our silver-maned, acid-popping protagonist with a suave Scottish charm that convincingly belies his troubled interior. His Glaswegian brogue oozes charisma but there is undoubtedly a touch of the weak-chinned philanderer about him too. One can see in him both the brilliant scientist trying to change the world, and the self-absorbed careerist caring more for his book-signings than his abandoned family.
Cox has good support from Kevin McMonagle as Aaron, a dour fellow Scot who keeps his feet firmly anchored to the ground and supplies some memorably witty lines. “You can’t keep your acid next to the milk” earns a big laugh. Oscar Pearce is also impressive as David Cooper, a raving Marxist whose wild-eyed mania is almost as entertaining as his vivid descriptions of drug-fuelled sexual exploits.
Marmion’s writing fizzes with intelligence and he clearly has a talent for snappy, articulate dialogue. He manages to work in some thought-provoking comment on our perceptions of mental illness, our attitudes towards unconventional medical practice, and much more besides, without it seeming artificial. He is also unafraid of letting his imagination run away with him – the majority of the second half is taken up with Laing taking a disconcerting acid trip into the future in which identities become fluid and characters mixed up.
True, Marmion drags out the play’s denouement longer than is perhaps necessary and the frequency with which he resorts to polysyllabic Russell Brand-esque rants does grow tiresome after a while, but on the whole, The Divided Laing is an enjoyably curious and carefree portrait of a conflicted individual and a maverick psychiatrist.