I live alone and I write in solitude. I write more than is good for the soul of a man. Hours of crepuscular isolation, in a darkened cottage, in a forgotten crevice of Worcestershire. I sometimes fear the shadows of madness lurk about me.
Powick is an apt place for such fears. Locals of a certain age take Powick as a byword for the controversial lunatic asylum that was once based here. It was controversial for the horrific conditions it inflicted on its patients, but also for the ‘mind loosening therapy’ it did with LSD in the 1950s, except that the therapy went out the window and minds were loosened for good. Powick broke many minds over many decades.
I fear that one day those shadows may close around me so completely that I will pass through into madness without even being aware of it. As Dr. Farquhar (Michael Sherwin) says in Mindgame, “Thinking there is nothing wrong with you is part of what’s wrong with you!” This is the perfect, pleasing paradox of insanity. Joseph Heller captures it eponymously in Catch 22: “Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.”
In Anthony Horowitz’s asylum, murder, madness and the titular mindgames clamour for precedence. Dr. Farquhar presides over a mental hospital for those who specialise in human butchery, while Styler (Andrew Ryan), a writer (a profession too often associated with mental instability) grills him for information relating to the infamous murderer who resides there. With the occasional febrile interruption from Nurse Paisley (Sarah Wynne Kordas) most of the drama swivels on the shifting relations between the two male characters and our persistent entertainment of the possibility that the inmates are running the asylum.
If this psychological thriller comes at times perilously close to end-of-the-pier hamminess, it takes on its highest form when elements of surreal menace (a tinny tanoy arbitrarily emitting snatches of screechy symphony, for instance) and Pinteresque absurdity (when a long list of increasingly bizarre sandwich options are offered) creep in. But this is a genre piece more than anything, and so with a perfunctory twist here, and an obligatory turn there, it is especially gratifying when the final revelation puts paid to the sneaking suspicion that some of the plot ends don’t quite tie up.
“Madness need not be all breakdown,” Dr. Farquhar says, quoting R.D.Laing. “It may also be break-through. It is potential liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.” Despite the cunning and carnage we have witnessed it turns out that we have been watching an attempt at therapy, and in the final few moments we see Styler, now wielding a scalpel rather than a pen, experience an epiphany that could take him in either direction.
Meanwhile, back in Powick, a new question niggles at me. Is my dementophobia a sure indicator of sanity, or a form of madness itself?
Mindgame is on at the Festival Theatre in Malvern until 15th April 2017. Click here for more details.