[The following contains spoilers.]
“Schiz,” a new play from Alexander Banks, hails from Norwich and it is currently established at the Space on Niddry Street. If I harbour any criticisms of the realism on offer within “Schiz,” I am not necessarily sure that I would wish to arrive at where this play is trying to get to. “Schiz” introduces us to Benjamin Teel (Banks), a paranoid schizophrenic who is, as is plain from the outset, already on the scrapheap. Indeed, Benjamin’s story is narrated from the foot of the gallows tree, which is nailed down as part of the set and obviously here on business. With such an inevitably bleak show ahead of us, is it really wise to demand a guarantee of realism?
The name of the psychiatrist Dr Caroline Wakefield (Laura Williamson) might be intentionally redolent of a doctor’s self-deluded belief in their abilities. A Dr Wakefield was also behind the conspiracy theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism. This localised Wakefield sits beneath the noose and maintains that Benjamin’s condition could only ever be managed. Her profession comes across as a vast edifice of uselessness. Yet the play’s morality is not turned off at the plug and it does submit a lesson and a warning. Sometimes schizophrenics cannot be straightforwardly denied their liberty – they might function to such a level that they are entitled to refuse treatment. Benjamin’s circumstances are so specific as to make this more a play about Benjamin than about schizophrenia. This is rather the point. His treatment has to be tailored for him, instead of coming ready made and off the shelf.
There are glints of originality amidst the televisual mud. Dr Wakefield’s over-personal involvement in the case is ten to the dozen amongst on-screen detectives. Although Williamson makes a plausible mental health professional, her “quid pro quo” therapeutic gambit will surely remind many audience members of Clarice Starling’s ministering to Hannibal Lecter. This does not add any sensitivity to the recipe. On the other hand, Benjamin’s paranoia about conscious musical instruments does pack the necessary frisson of weirdness, giving his schizophrenia the individuality that is so central to this play’s message.
I had my doubts concerning Benjamin’s delusions. “Schiz” commits itself to robing the voices (Megan Artherton and Tom Denny) in human bodies but their villainy is too strident or gleeful for my taste. The moments of violence are too much of a waltz. Having identified a problem, however, I am not at all confident that I could locate the solution. What would hallucinatory voices possibly look like?
“Schiz” eventually accrues earnings from its investment in the voices. The actors who play the voices fill in as the tribunal that is investigating Dr Wakefield, so that its snooty officialdom seems to contain some distant echo of a forgotten, primal irrationality. There is also a triumphant effect in the later stages of Benjamin’s psychosis when the voices begin to caper around the stage with the alarming agitation of monkeys. Their nonsensical words and justifications are whipped away like cheap masks, revealing the insane urges beneath.
Benjamin dies not mourned by his family but discussed by bureaucrats. We should be at least grateful for this play’s stylistic diversions to take the edge off its vicious reality.