One of the few things I retained from my generally abstruse Foucault module at university was the idea that ‘madness’ was caused by seeing too much; “Unreason is to reason as dazzlement is to daylight”. So rather than seeing what isn’t there, as is often portrayed, someone who is ‘mad’ is in fact seeing the truth all too vividly. This is where we find Fidel, remarkably intelligent and yet unable to find a place for himself in the world. His IQ and specialist knowledge should speak for themselves, but the education system and jobs market have spent years telling him that he should not think so well of himself, nor reach so high, because of the colour of his skin.
This conflict between what appears to be, and what is actually the case has driven him to schizophrenia and an inability to match his internal voice with the external world.
It takes us a while to discover that this is what’s happening because the story seems to begin inside Fidel’s psyche, which is understandably confusing. Flitting through an old diary, he’s triggered by seemingly innocuous phrases, repeating them over and over, fast and slow, obsessing over conversations that happened decades ago, sometimes reverting back to his younger self to relive these painful experiences. Whilst all this abstract panic and tenuous storytelling feels foggy and hard to grip on to, the next phase- Fidel locked in an institution, suffering fits and muttering those same phrases to himself- is all the more so.
It’s a really illuminating format because seeing Fidel as his doctor sees him, he’s chaos incarnate, implacable and impossible to speak to. Whereas, whilst we’re certainly confused in the first part, there’s an implicated sense of reason, even if it’s partially indecipherable. And he does indeed have some illuminating thoughts, considering the effect his mother’s disappointment had on him, for example, or his feeling of certainty of who he truly is.
A glowing border marks the edges of the stage whenever we’re privy to Fidel’s inner thoughts, expressing a sense of comfort and safety when he’s able and allowed to move within the parameters of his own mind without dealing with outside factors. Aside from this, and some diary excerpts written in chalk on the floor, design is pretty pared back, with hardly any props or costumes. This makes it all the more impressive that I’m genuinely disgusted when Anthony Ofoegbu mimes throwing up his enforced medication and uses it to write on the imaginary walls of his imaginary cell, chasing his doctor off the stage with imaginary-sick-covered hands.
Ofoegbu gives quite an astonishing performance, at once charming and hyper-neurotic. There’s also a lot of physical work as he literally moves through his thoughts and memories, and it could so easily have looked hokey and amateur. But whilst Ofoegbu isn’t exactly dancing, he moves organically, without inhibition, and it’s quite beautiful.
Despite all this praise, though, it does feel more like a really good idea rather than a completed narrative. Where, for example, are we at the beginning and end of the story? It feels initially like a storage room or maybe a moving day, with a bunch of boxes being huffed and puffed across the stage. But then when we arrive in the institution it seems as though the bit before was somewhere internal, Fidel mentally rifling through old memories, rather than a real physical room with real physical boxes. Except that we end up back there in the end, with Fidel calling his dad and inviting him out for lunch.
The idea of mental illness and racism being heavily intertwined is deep and affecting, but it’s also not properly explored, with the experience of mania taking precedent over the actual content and cause of it; writer and director Paul Anthony Morris seems more concerned with making the audience feel Fidel’s discomfort than with expounding on the ideas that led him to want to present this story.
The ending too, whilst seeming coherent and meaningful, also doesn’t really sit right. “I have decided that my choices will determine my reality”, Fidel states confidently. But, like, what does that really mean? Whilst we may need to move around the world with partial blinkers on in order not to stare directly at the many hypocrisies and injustices, you can’t really just decide to choose your own reality. I don’t know though, maybe this is too lofty a disagreement, and what Morris is saying is simply that you have to live by your own code and not worry too much about what society thinks of you.
Conundrum is on at the Young Vic until 4th February 2022. More info and tickets here.