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Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 31 October 2016

Review: Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion at the Arcola Theatre

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 19th October - 29th October 2016, The Albany: 1st November - 12th November 2016

“It felt like taking a punch in the gut, then learning how to heal.”: Corrie Tan reviews Belarus Free Theatre’s new work about schizophrenia.

Corrie Tan
Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill.

Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion at the Arcola Theatre.
Photo: Marilyn Kingwill.

“I promise I will never, ever, ever leave you,” The Captain whispers into a teenage Arnhild Lauveng’s ear, his mouth framed by the bright beam of a small flashlight. It sounds like a kindly assurance, but it’s really a curse – The Captain is the first voice of a chorus that will soon manifest in Lauveng’s mind, voices that will take root and plunge their tendrils into the farthest recesses of her brain. This gutting production by the Belarus Free Theatre is based on Lauveng’s memoir as a “recovered schizophrenic” (she is now a practising psychologist in Norway) and maps her journey down into the abyss and then back into the light.
The character of Lauveng is played by all five members of a very committed, achingly vulnerable cast in turn, bookended by the incredible Emily Houghton, who introduces us to Lauveng as a girl only just beginning to unravel the horror that will plague her for years and years to come. It’s innocuous at first, as she begins to write her diary in the third person and attempts to articulate her feelings of despair to the school nurse, but this soon morphs into a creature beyond her control, as figures such as “The Captain” emerge, causing her to physically harm herself and hallucinate as she walks through the school halls. In-between long bouts of isolation in mental health institutions, humiliating altercations with mental health professionals, and crippling self-doubt and self-loathing, Lauveng’s strong stance on the reform needed in mental health care becomes clear – it’s a plea on both knees for dignity, patience and kindness, for patients to be seen as people.

The gritty lo-fi sound and lighting effects are key here in communicating the trickery of the mind. The cast largely create their own effects, a clever nod to how much the human mind can conjure: a flashlight under the chin and suddenly they’re a pack of wolves baring their teeth; the screech of a recorder creates a soundscape for difficult emotional terrain; the thwack of a rod against a chair stings as if it’s touched the skin; tiny video cameras embedded in books allow the actors’ faces to be projected, up-close and large-scale, on a high wall. Light and shadow form a potent visual metaphor throughout the work, and there’s some beautiful shadow play, but these shadows always recede back into the darkness, just out of reach, just as ‘real life’ always seems to linger beyond Lauveng’s grasp in her institutionalised world.

Director Vladimir Shcherban has adapted Lauveng’s memoir carefully for the stage, making sure that her voice is the voice that comes through at all times, whether through the ensemble or through recorded voiceovers that punctuate the piece. These calm, measured voiceovers form a counterpoint to the pain and violence on stage as actors strike themselves, are forcibly restrained and cuffed, or cry and scream. The voiceovers are a reminder of Lauveng’s recovery, an anchor to cling to even in the play’s darkest moments.

This production is also a fine homage to the very first show produced by the ground-breaking Belarus Free Theatre a decade ago, Sarah Kane’s fierce and unsettling 4.48 Psychosis, also about an individual’s struggle with her mental health – but if Kane sent her protagonist into a downward spiral, never to return, Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion propels its protagonist back to the surface, even if there are no easy answers or neat endings. The play is leavened with humour even at its bleakest points, and the excellent cast walks that thin tightrope between the urge to over-act in a portrayal of ‘extreme’ mental illness, and hard-hitting authenticity. There are some wobbles, but the heart of the piece always remains true: that a person can choose what defines them, instead of letting the world impose its definition upon him or her.

The series of post-show conversations that take place after each show are, I feel, just as crucial to the experience of the play as the thing itself. I sat in on the Hearing Voices Café after the show I attended, where audience members wrestled with their own experiences of mental health issues and also untangled the knottier parts of the play, questioning the “mad artist” stereotype as well as how to be better allies to those who need support. It was a safe, gentle space to address a spiky play, underscored by the fact that what was advocated has the potential to travel beyond the stage and into the community. It felt like taking a punch in the gut, then learning how to heal.

Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion continues at The Albany from November 1st. Click here for more details.

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Corrie Tan

CORRIE TAN is a writer, editor and translator from Singapore. She was formerly an arts correspondent and theatre reviewer at The Straits Times, Singapore's largest English-language newspaper. She also co-organised the M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, which honours excellence in Singapore theatre. She completed an MA in Performance & Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, on a National Arts Council Arts Scholarship (Postgraduate). www.corrie-tan.com

Review: Tomorrow I Was Always A Lion at the Arcola Theatre Show Info


Produced by Clare Robertson for Belarus Free Theatre

Directed by Vladimir Shcherban

Written by Arnhild Lauveng, adapted for stage by Vladimir Shcherban, with additional editing by Maryia Bialkovich

Cast includes Grace Andrews, Oliver Bennett, Emily Houghton, Samantha Pearl, Alex Robertson

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