Asylum (Owl & Cat) – theatre review

Accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment for mental illness should be a given, but as history shows, often that’s not the case. In Asylum, two involuntarily institutionalised patients are put through the wringer by an overly officious (read: downright brutish) doctor.

One is a young man, Ben (Steven Oktaras), who believes he is dead. Most of all, he would love to hear the voice of his dear mum, but the specialist, Doctor Grey  (Sonia Marcon) won’t entertain that notion. Then a new patient arrives. She’s Katie (Rachel Kamath), a young woman who doesn’t understand why she is there and just wants to go home. She likes to paint, but her paintings fail to impress “the governess”.

Doctor Grey dishes out meds as if they were Smarties. She maintains a threatening demeanour, and enlists the assistance of a lackey, Tom (Cesar Pichardo). She makes a point of telling both “inmates” that their treatment has a long way to go, all but removing any hope of release. Inevitably, Katie’s dreams (in which she is visited by her deceased partner, Chris – James Di-Michele) are also met with opprobrium. The medic whinges continually about the mental strain the patients are placing upon her. And then the tables are turned.

Just what one is to make of all this, I’m not sure. I appreciated the set up, but the play felt long-winded and the run home lost it entirely for me. I found it muddled and it left me totally confused. The character of the doctor was unconvincing; and she drove the action.

The set and lightning designs were rewarding features, with the mood of unease aided by the weird, synthesised music. The Owl and Cat is noted for doing much with little. In this case, the pivot points are green balloons forming the shape of a tree. Overlooking those is a small neon green hangman’s noose. Directly opposite is a series of individual pink balloons and a pink chair, where the interrogations take place. Nearby is a trolley, atop which sit nine pink medicine bottles.

Californian playwright Nicolas Walker Herbert has undoubtedly created a mind teaser, but there are pieces of the jigsaw missing … never to be found. Herbert says the play originated from the concept of people being “constantly trapped and the ways they are trapped, and how they try to escape”. He says the piece is also “about how muddy and fuzzy our memories are and how greatly our subconscious hides our true selves from the world … and even our conscious selves.”

Direction from Catherine Holder – making her debut – needed tightening. Asylum is playing at The Owl and Cat Theatre, 34 Swan Street, Richmond until 16 September 2017.

Alex First

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