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> > > Cabinet of Cynics and Stepping Out Theatre present The Divided Laing, or The Two Ronnies

7 December 2015

London, 1970. With his personal life going down the pan and his mental state heading the same way, R.D. Laing takes an acid trip to the future. Simon Jenner reviews Patrick Marmion’s comedy of errors about the life and times of the infamous experimental psychiatrist.

Actor Alan Cox dresses in a smart suit, looking askance as James Russell approaches from behind

James Russell as Joseph Berke and Alan Cox as R.D. Laing in 'The Divided Laing or The Two Ronnies' by Patrick Marmion. Photo by Adam Bennett

‘Ronnie wasn’t an alcoholic, Ronnie was a Glaswegian’, a colleague of R.D. Laing once pointed out. It’s a pity others misunderstood this part of his culture too. Patrick Marmion shrinks a phantasmagorical net for Alan Cox to inhabit - unnervingly - the once-celebrated psychiatrist, who appears on BBC2 and invites Sean Connery to dinner (both running gags) as easily as beats the shit out of his colleague and shares acid trips with other ‘colleagues,’ whom he refuses to call patients. 

Indeed, when Laing gets caught in a fight by a police officer at Kingsley Hall he claims his adversary is “a patient”, leading to the sectioning of his ‘real’ colleague Aaron Esterson (Kevin McMonagle) in the Maudsley. The asylum has taken over the psychiatrist, as one might say, passim. Not a man to forestall divided opinion then.

It’s 29th February 1970 and Laing’s forty-first birthday. He charms a personable woman interviewer, who refuses Mary Barnes’ Marmite sandwiches. We’ve just heard an introductory comment from Mary (Laura-Kate Gordon, cringingly good as the Saved Self), Laing’s great success, who once covered herself with poo, which everyone seems to know. So only Laing eats. It’s another running joke, a mode fitting Laing and this crazily serious drama. The other postscript to the morning post is the community’s notice of eviction from their house, Kinglsey Hall, in Bromley-by-Bow. 

It’s a house divided before that. Laing’s The Divided Self models a societal familial reason for so-called Schizophrenia. That’s revolutionary when up against the psychiatric resort to genetic or chemical explanations with chemical outcomes. Laing’s up against near-impossible odds, lengthening as the play progresses. Ironically then, Laing’s approach currently enjoys a revival. The Open Dialogue approach to people experiencing a mental health crisis owes much to Laingian theory and has proved successful in Finland. One must map this to refract Marmion’s spectacular work in a northern-lit perspective, as it were, to signal an important omission. 

There’s enough in here, and some (wrongly I feel) complain, too much. The plot is lucid, classically confined to twenty-four hours, admitting two time-travelling episodes can function cheerfully within ancient conventions. Oscar Pearce shines in a wild set of mood-swings as David Cooper, the South African psychiatrist whose behaviour, tripping out on the roof with serious acid causes the most mayhem.

Cooper is Laing’s first divided self, a Trotsykist who’s thought by the long-suffering Esterson to be dead. In fact, Cooper has seen 2015, knows he dies in 1986 and that Laing’s death is in 1989 (right both times). Cooper orates with mirror-like prescience of mobile phones googling and consumerism: we get a Seventies Trotskyist kicking for 2015. 

More seriously Laing himself trips, having seen off skinhead riots in a scene worthy of Coriolanus (there’s a filet of Shakespearean reference, if oblique). He has laughed at Cooper’s terrorizing of local drinkers, defied Joe Berke (James Russell) another colleague, has beaten up Esterson, and finds himself just a little isolated. 

His own dream is also 2015, a present-day Maudsley clinical hearing where he’s brought in as delusional, believing he’s Laing. The spry McMonagle points out he’s the real Laing, limber at 86, a great success, having written The Undivided Self, renounced radicalism, seen improvements answering many of his 1970s criticisms. 

Within this sequence the rest of the cast double-up as consummate mental-health professionals. Persuading them to leave, Laing senior privately offers his younger self the chance to renounce his wrong-headedness, return and prepare for the 2015 avatar that will otherwise section him. 1970 Laing refuses and wakes to the dissolution of his dreams.

Not all of them. Laing’s mother scorns him in one visitation, for abandoning his wife and five children. His mistress, Ulrike Engels (Amiera Darwish) now claims him with a gift of an old phrenology head. Broken during a fight with a group of marauding skinheads Ulrike points out that Mary has glue for the exploded head… as she has solutions for everything. The symbolism doesn’t clunk. 

Indeed, proving that all gags have a point, Marmion brings them on at the end in a fine éclat to this tremendous shaggy-shrink tale, which somewhere might take on board the latest twist: Laing’s not wrong, he’s just not from Edinburgh.  

The Divided Laing plays the Arcola, Dalston until 12th December

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