Lifestyle media is often crowded with ‘self-help,’ promising that this hypnotist or that psychic can make you a better or luckier person. News media swings from worrying us about plagues of ADHD-addled toddlers, to reassuring us that geneticists and neuroscientists are always on the verge of ‘curing’ personality traits, tinkering us into brilliance. Can we really be better than we are? Are personality traits things to be treasured or pathologised? These questions – with added quantum mechanics and wordplay – are explored by Leeds-based Manic Chord Theatre in their hour-long piece After What Comes Before, presented as part the New Diorama’s Incoming Festival, which celebrates emerging theatre companies.
The premise could come straight from a Hollywood B-movie: three mad scientists create a machine that can extract negative thoughts and correct them. ‘Negative’ and ‘correct’ are, of course, matters of opinion which have sparked centuries of debate by priests, scientists, fascists and philosophers. An hour isn’t a huge amount of time in which to cover these issues, but Manic Chord does so well.
From the outset the three-strong cast excel in creating a dreamlike atmosphere. David Cartwright’s physicist uses cashew nuts to develop ‘focus and control’ over his wild hyperactivity; Sam Berrill’s neuroscientist talks in Joyce-like streams of consciousness; Alex Monk’s creepy psychologist veers from legato to rapid-fire monologue. As a small touring production with a minimalist set (by Helen Russell Brown) After What Comes Before is well suited to the New Diorama’s black box, although some of the dialogue gets a little lost in the space.
In our psychologist’s world, his machine will help restore balance to people’s minds in an attempt to make the population ‘what it should be’. This sounds eerily like the mid 20th-century fashions for lobotomy and eugenics, and finds a modern echo in the mass prescription of Ritalin to control the behaviour of boisterous toddlers. The psychologist has a full list of ‘disorders’ to correct, some of which read more like personality traits than pathologies. Indirectly the play seems question the sense behind a mindset which says that behavioural differences can be reduced to disorders, to be looked up in the DSM – psychiatry’s ‘Bible’ – and cured. Obliquely, it says, there’s more madness in medicalising personality than there is in personality itself.
Just as the tension between psychotherapy and psychiatry (drugs versus therapy) plays out in journals and science magazines, on stage our neuroscientist questions the psychologist’s motives and actions even as he colludes by giving them credence. Treated as a straight subject this could descend into dreary moralising, but Manic Chord tell it through sharp wordplay and almost balletic physical comedy. The whole play creates a feeling of surreal unease – try to imagine Lewis Carroll’s Mad March Hare in a lab coat, inflicting dubious mental experiments on the Mad Hatter. Throughout, it’s hard to be sure if we’re watching the start of a mind-altering experiment, or if we’re trapped inside it. Such is life.