“This show does not make sense,” we’re informed shortly after the opening of Outbound Project’s fractured study of collective psychosis and the power dynamics inherent in the classification of mental illness. While it’s certainly an awkward, occasionally clunky, production, there’s a tightly-structured piece of work unfolding under the surface.
Though the performers joke about overactive fog machines and make snarky remarks about missed lighting cues, the overfamiliar conceit of a pretentious performance piece going a bit wrong serves as a meta-fictional jumping-off point for an examination of the treatment of women through history. Labelled hysterical, studied as medical curiosities, or dismissed as irrational, the characters negotiate several distinct narrative strands.
The first revolves around the work of pioneering neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, here depicted as a ludicrously preening, moustache-stroking circus barker. MJ Lee caricatures him – and several of his pompous, patronising colleagues – absolutely savagely, strutting about behind an unlikely series of facial hair-styles made from strips of electrical tape, prognosticating in a flurry of multilingual condescension.
Meanwhile, Lucy Bishop plays the best-known of his patients, the troubled Blanche Wittmann, providing an empathetic heart to the show as she’s used as a prop in Charcot’s lectures. There’s an unsettling tension between her spirited interactions with her fellow patients, and her pliable passivity as she’s prodded and manipulated by doctors, an intriguing question-mark hanging over the truthfulness of the bizarre symptoms she presents.
Another of the show’s strands recounts the infamous Dancing Plague that struck Strasbourg in 1518, when hundreds of seemingly-healthy citizens – predominantly women – took to the streets to engage in an exhausting, uncontrollable, occasionally fatal weeks-long dance.
While a rich and moody voiceover sneers about the dancer’s “false pride” and disobedience to their husbands, the company lurch and judder through some vigorous movement work, with athletic leaps, spins, and trust falls incorporated into a visually-arresting and jaggedly-angular routine.
Both threads are repeatedly interrupted with a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the company’s chaotic working process, which hints at clashing egos and incompatible artistic practices pulling the developing show in different directions. Some simple magic tricks feed into a discussion of gullibility and suggestibility. Cards are pulled from the juicy centres of fresh lemons. A “randomly selected number” ends up pointing to a bible verse about the power of healing.
After spending the entirety of the performance quarantined in a clingfilm-walled cabinet and interpreting the unfolding action through an abstract, slow-motion dance routine, Chloe Holliday bursts free to deliver an impassioned monologue about living your own truth.
It’s an abrupt ending that momentarily quickens the pulse of a formally-ambitious but ultimately disjointed performance. While the ideas here are individually intriguing, the echoes and repetitions built into the structure start to lose their impact with each reiteration, while the frantic energy promised by the theme never quite materialises. Despite the opening disclaimer, the show makes perfect sense – this is stylish, thoughtful, imaginative stuff – it’s just a little underdeveloped.
M.E.H. is on at Underbelly until 25th August as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.