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On the uses of art and polemic in theatre.. Howard Barker and Patrick Marmion battling it out in the same theatre... / 4 December 2015

black and white graphic of psychiatrist R.D. Laing's head divided in two

Poster image for Patrick Marmion's 'The Divided Laing' at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston

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I went to the Arcola Theatre in Dalston the other night and was dazzled by an unexpected encounter with Howard Barker - considered one of the major writers of modern European theatre. I found myself in the 'wrong' studio as Barker began holding court about the state of Theatre in the UK: “The best thing British Theatre could do would be to get rid of the English,” he said, lamenting the utilitarian approach to the Arts evident in this country; “and probably something to do with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism.”

Barker railed against the idea that Art needs to be ‘for’ or ‘about’ anything and the need to justify the ‘use’ of what you produce as evidence for any funding application. And although it is evident (to me at least) that the utilitarian approach is a cornerstone of why and how Disability Arts has been awarded the success it has within the Arts funding system here over the last 25 years, I have sympathy with Barker’s concerns that proving ‘a use’ can be a death knell for creativity. In Europe there is no conflict about Art needing 'a purpose' and so Barker talked about five of his plays being produced in the Parisien equivalent of the National Theatre with no more reason other than that “the Director likes the work.”

Here, Arts production is more often driven by what mainstream theatre directors thinks their audience wants rather than programming what interests them aesthetically and artistically. For me, Patrick Marmion’s evocation of the life and times of psychiatrist Ronald Laing: ‘The Divided Laing’ - seen later in the same theatre - seemed to me an example of a play written and produced for a specific zeitgeist.

Alan Cox’s reinvigoration of the spirit of R.D. Laing, bête-noir of the psychiatric profession is immensely enjoyable. With an uncanny physical resemblance Cox effortlessly expounds Laing’s views on so-called mental illness: “Schizophrenia is a word for people who don’t fit… or who find it impossible to be themselves,” and “You can’t cure people who are not sick.”

But, ultimately the play is a reimagining of Laing alive and well in 2015, (played by Kevin McMonagle) as a clinician at the Maudsley, having “sold out” as a witting proponent for the previously reviled ‘Medical Model’.

Through its telling Marmion’s The Divided Laing undermines the very questions about the medical model that Laing raised and denies the impact of Laing’s ideas on the purpose of psychiatry as a tool for understanding the soul.

With recent questions about the ‘cure’ of Peter Sutcliffe, infesting the Media with explanations for ‘schizophrenia’ and the all-pervasive lies about anti-psychotic medication as the answer to ‘mental illness’ I left the theatre thinking about Barker’s stance against naturalism and the dangers of theatre that takes a polemical stance on the ’truth’, dressed up as entertainment.

As clinical psychologist Rufus May wrote to me via twitter recently: “the term schizophrenic is offensive and misleading,” yet, so Marmion tells us in the Divided Laing, recent research has proved elements of the theory of genetic inheritance and advances have proved that schizophrenia can be treated with medication.

It is all a matter of conjecture, depending on what reports you read and which publications you believe. The Critical Psychiatry Network and the likes of US journalist Robert Whitaker would clearly take exception to Marmion’s script.

In contrast to Marmion, Ridiculusmus’s David Woods and Jon Haynes when researching a play about psychosis they intended to write, they travelled to Finland to meet Dr Jaakko Seikkula, author of the Open Dialogue approach, which draws from R. D. Laing’s ideas, sharing the premise that the symptoms of psychosis are intelligible responses to difficult aspects of life’s experience. Commissioned by Sick! Festival in March 2014, ‘The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland’ uses a counter-intuitive form of naturalism, designed to unsettle any notion of reality, rather than to create an illusion of reality.

The intention of the artist is everything. Marmion set out to prove Laing wrong, where Woods and Haynes set out to illustrate a state of mind. As a mirror Art can be used in many ways. Perhaps defining those ways is a necessary evil or perhaps Barker is right and creativity rather than structure is the key to good art? As Quentin Crisp said famously "everyone knows the uses of the useful, but no-one knows the uses of the useless.'