Thursday, 16 April 2015

Shakespeare and mental health

Our guest author Philip Bowen runs Shakespeare Link, a highly praised theatre company specialising in the Great Bard’s works which provides a valuable community resource. It is based at the Willow Globe near Llandrindod Wells in Powys – a scaled down living version of The Globe in London.

During 2014 – 2015 Philip also took on the voluntary role of High Sheriff of Powys, and contributed hugely to the work of various voluntary sector mental health organisations. He worked with Powys Patients’ Council to open the Wellness & Recovery Room at Bronllys Hospital in the summer of 2014, presented an award to Ponthafren Association for ‘Recognition of Great & Valuable Services to the Community’ in October 2014 and spoke at the Winter 2014 Powys Mental Health Alliance Open Day in Llandrindod Wells.

As next week (April 23 to be precise) is the anniversary of the playwright’s birth (and death) we decided to catch up with Philip for his take on Shakespeare’s depiction of mental distress.

Tell us about the connection between Shakespeare and mental health

Shakespeare would have been surrounded by mental distress. There was no such thing as “care in the community” in the 17th century. The characters in his plays often go through a fracturing or breaking down followed by a reassembling at the end. This seems to go hand-in-hand with marriage which is often perceived as a healing element. There is a search for harmony within both the characters and the storyline.

In which of Shakespeare's plays do you think mental distress is most evident?

In Macbeth the image of madness or mental ill health is so accurate – it shows the troubles scored into the very inside of a person. I particularly like the quote from the Doctor when he is ministering to the troubled Lady Macbeth. He says “Therein the patient Must minister to himself.”

In the late plays – Cymbeline, Pericles, The Tempest – the characters tell their story and at the end of the play a big part of the healing is “knowing thyself;” “to thine own self be true.”

Cast members from the 2013 production of All's Well That Ends Well

Tell us about some of your own experiences playing Shakespeare's characters who are clearly mentally distressed and how that impacts on you

There is a feeling you cannot escape it. Even in the dressing room you can hear the rest of the play going on over the tannoy. I played Hamlet at the Young Vic – it was an extraordinary experience. Is it assumed madness or genuine madness? Hamlet almost negotiates himself into madness – it infects him more than he realises. Sometimes madness is a privilege.

Love is a form of madness. As Theseus states in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.”

Tell us about your work in the community and what drew you to develop that side of your work

Sue Best and I have used Shakespeare’s plays as a means of training for family therapists. It’s intriguing for us – together we look at the work of the therapists and the scenes from the plays, particularly the characters’ minds. 400 years ago a man was writing about scenarios that the therapists work with today and forming a methodology by writing a story.

The development of character through story was the great development of Shakespeare’s time. Previously characters in drama did not change that much. In Shakespeare they develop, grow and become rounded. This is particularly shown through the soliloquies.

Shakespeare belongs to us all, it is not just the property of academe or the big theatres. It is a major cornerstone of our culture. I have travelled a lot in the Third World, in West/South/East Africa and the Far East. There is a fascination with Shakespeare in these places. He flies in under the radar politically. We worked in Malawi in the 1980s when Hastings Banda was president of the one party state.

Phil working with Celf O Gwmpas
Back in the UK we took The Tempest into Maidstone prison for seven weeks. I played Prospero, and other parts were played by the prison inmates. The work had a huge impact on the inmates and the audiences, which were made up of other inmates and members of the public.

We also did work at the Home Office secure unit at Reaside in Birmingham. There was a lot of interesting discussion about control and restraint – a major theme in The Tempest. A conversation would start up – “remember that first night when we got banged up…?”

There is a recognition and a realisation amongst people that what they are acting has a real relevance within their own lives.

What about your work in Powys more recently?

Last year we did some weekly drama workshops with the patients on Felindre Ward at Bronllys Hospital and the Occupational Therapists there. They were called “Acting Up” and really well received. People said “you’re stopping us having our cigarettes!” (You can read more about the Bronllys workshops and some feedback from participants on page 2 here.)

What does the outdoor performance bring to the experience of Shakespeare?

It’s the Nature side of it – Shakespeare was a country man. London was small then. There was more wildlife in the sky. “Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,” says Viola in Twelfth Night.

At the Willow Globe we have Shakespeare based nature trails with relevant quotes from the plays on slate. It helps people understand what he’s talking about. “Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” sings Ariel in The Tempest. You can find this quote next to the bee hives.

In what way are the words and wisdom of Shakespeare a "fundamental, behavioural and spiritual resource far beyond the preserves of conventional theatre or academe"?

The plays are a fundamental resource. You can learn about human behaviour and spirituality – the connection with the outdoors. Somebody once said about Radnor – “it’s a thin place here…. Because the spirits come through.”

Many thanks to Phil for talking to us. If you'd like to find out more you can watch a YouTube video about the Willow Globe Theatre and Shakespeare Link here.

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