Features Essays Published 26 May 2015

Theatre of Wilderness

Tim Foley on theatres as places of sanctuary, the importance of language when talking about mental illness and his new play, The Dogs of War.
Tim Foley

There’s a beautiful old building on the outskirts of a rural Welsh town called Denbigh, which I discovered when I visited a friend in North Wales. It’s one of those gothic buildings that looks less like brick and stone, and more like a monochrome etching in a Victorian novel. This was North Wales Hospital, or more popularly known as Denbigh Asylum.

As a mental institution, it was the site of a lot of medical research, and many mental health professionals began their careers here. Stripped of its former purpose (the building was closed at the end of the millennium and is slowly being turned into a block of flats), the hospital is currently no more than a husk, but it’s still what I picture when I hear the word ‘asylum’. In fact, so strong is the image, that I’m always surprised when I see that word being used in the context of ‘sanctuary’ or ‘haven’ – in my lexicon, ‘asylum’ is one of those words like ‘awful’ or ‘gay’ whose semantic change has all but obliterated the original meaning. An ‘awful gay asylum’ could have been a happy cave full of awe and wonder for a Victorian gentleman, but these days it would be a den of iniquity to terrify the DUP.

Rambling around rural Wales was fun, but I’m more familiar with, and more in awe of, the magnificent Northern Irish countryside. No matter how industrial and built-up your immediate environment may be, if you drive twenty minutes in any direction in Northern Ireland, the language of the city melts away and you find yourself in beautiful, desolate landscapes. When you roam around and find yourself in such isolation, incessant thoughts swell up in your head and start to inhabit your entire world.

The asylums out here are the ones we build ourselves. Being a self-involved and arrogant teenager in Belfast was the first time I realised that the mind can be overloaded and, its health, undervalued. When I reason why that old usage of ‘asylum’ doesn’t mean much to me, I reckon it’s because the very concept of it is slipping away. The idea of a respite from life’s machinations, especially amongst my generation, is a pretty mythical thing. We’re unlikely to be more than a metre from our phones at any one time and minimum wage jobs don’t allow month long vacations in places with monastic conditions. In short – we don’t switch off. We’ve all had it, that social media fatigue, that wish to throw our phones against the wall, that need to scream, that need to silence our mental spiral. And it’s jarring to think of that as a healthy response. I guess it is though. Sometimes we need to take a step back. But the more connected we become, the harder it is to disconnect.

One sanctuary I discovered since leaving Northern Ireland was the theatre – and I suspect, since you’re reading this, it’s one you’ve discovered as well. Phones are turned off, the lights are dimmed, and then we climb into an alien world and lose ourselves for as long as the story lasts. There’s that beautiful quote from Neil Gaiman about how escapism equips us for the real world, and I think he’s spot on. This is exactly why I go to see plays. That chance to pause, to reflect – it shouldn’t not be a luxury. It is an essential coping mechanism, and vital to my mental health. When I first picked up my pen in some naive attempt to wield it as a baton, I had romantic aspirations to become an Angry Young Man à la John Osborne. Instead, crippled by debt and insecurity, I find myself becoming an Anxious Young Man, worried about what I’m doing and where I’m headed. It’s from this bubbling vat that The Dogs of War has surfaced.

I’ve harked back to that Northern Irish wilderness, and it’s the perfect setting to frame a story about the struggles of the mind and the desperation of strangers. The Dogs of War is not a political play, but it does not shirk its political implications. We’ve just had a general election. It was pretty awful. And we’ve now had the inevitable arguments from the likes of Matt Trueman questioning the role of political theatre.

The cast of The Dogs of War

The cast of The Dogs of War

For the Herming family in The Dogs of War, mental illness is not a political issue, it is the fraying fabric of their daily life. And these are people who have not honed their coping mechanisms, especially when their finances and location work against them. And this is where the self-involved and arrogant younger me would dive in and recommend they all go to the theatre and sort themselves out. No. I’m lucky enough to now live in a city where these places are on my doorstep. That’s just not an option when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. We had a mental health professional sat in rehearsals of The Dogs of War, and what was incredibly apparent was that there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for mental illness. It really challenged my own preconceptions of both conditions and treatments. For example, I had long assumed that electro-shock therapy was barbaric and retired. In fact, it’s still used, and these days it’s humane and effective. On the flip side, in the case of some drugs, it seems we’re barely passed the bloodletting stage, chasing effects instead of the cause. But good work is being done by good people, such as Rethink Mental Illness, the charity The Dogs of War is supporting during its run.

In Victorian times, madness fascinated medical professionals and society alike. Despite pivotal work in the twentieth century, we’ve barely moved on from nineteenth century terminology. If I used the term ‘manic depressive’, you’d likely recognise that as a medical term. Technically, it’s not anymore: it was officially retired as a classification back in 1980 and replaced with ‘bipolar’. And if we think of other afflictions, the words have stayed the same, but the meanings don’t match up. The images we have in our head of ‘schizophrenia’ have been warped by cultural notions of homicidal Jekylls and Hydes, vastly overstating the condition’s dangers to others. Contrarily, descriptions of ‘depression’ often require the prefix ‘clinical’ – because, you know, ‘depression’ on its own is just someone sitting in their pyjamas and feeling a bit glum, right? Here, we’re vastly understating the condition’s danger to the self. Would we let this happen with physical conditions? I remember reading Victorian novels as a kid and not giving a shit about all the characters dying from something called consumption. When I learned it was another name for tuberculosis, I remember being shocked: that was a real illness, I’d had an injection for that. Consumption is treated with bloodletting and prayers to the omniscient narrator. Tuberculosis is treated with contemporary medicine. So too do the words we use for mental health dictate our treatment of them – not merely medical treatment, but cultural treatment. It is that cultural treatment, that perception of mental illness, that is at the very heart of The Dogs of War. I think we’ve all grown up with at least a base awareness of certain conditions – perhaps we’ve had a family member who has suffered from depression, or a friend who has been diagnosed with a mood disorder – but the sliding scale of sanity is a reality we can all struggle with.

I tell myself that asylums don’t need to be the scary old buildings of yesterday, that they can be havens of safety and creativity. And I don’t mean that literally – I’m not advocating they stop the renovations in Denbigh or anything like that – but we can at least create neutral spaces and tell stories that help minds heal. This is what I love about theatre. It can knit our neuroses into something desolate and beautiful.

The Dogs of War is at the Old Red Lion, London, from 26th May – 20th June 2015.

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