The Players Lab @ Shuffle Festival

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Originally written for The Public Reviews

As site specific venues go, one cannot ask for better than St. Clement’s – an abandoned psychiatric hospital and former Victorian workhouse on the Mile End Road. The three acre estate is dominated by a derelict clocktower, overgrown in many places and separated from Tower Hamlets Cemetery by a high surrounding wall. It doesn’t scream comfortable real estate, but that is exactly what this location is to become when it is redeveloped and in light of this, the Planktonic Players have come together to tell the site’s history before it becomes whitewashed into modern flats.

In a series of four short plays, the audience are led around the hospital, playing witness to various segments of the history of its inhabitants through time. From Victorian hysteria to a soldier returning from Northern Ireland, the Players delve into various facets of mental illness and how society perceives and deals with it; historically, mostly by locking its sufferers away and out of sight.

Longing, pain, joy and even moments of comedy all take their turn and while the short duration of the pieces makes it tough for moments of true poignancy to burst through, the performance strengthens as it goes on. It is difficult to tell whether the shift in tone between pieces is intentionally or incidentally jarring, but moving from the torment of a woman being ‘treated’ for hysteria to happily singing around a fire is certainly evocative of the intimate juxtaposition between suffering and indifference that has attended mental illness throughout its history in society.

As an attempt to grapple with the history of psychiatric treatment and a tour of a remarkable location, The Players Lab is worth a visit. Well intentioned, if a little awkward in varying from heavy handed to a light touch when dealing with its issues, it is only a pity that there is not time to delve more deeply into the characters brought to light and the opportunity to truly force audiences to examine their own attitudes towards mental health. In setting the audience as voyeurs in these spaces, one feels there could have been more opportunity to elicit some discomfort; to provoke and question.

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