“A woman wrote the play!,” gibbers a theatergoing doctor in Nell Leyshon’s new play at Shakespeare’s Globe. “Inconceivable!” Leyshon might be forgiven the self-referential gag: with “Bedlam,” she becomes the first woman to write for this theater in its (interrupted) 400-year history. As her subject, she takes history’s most notorious institution for the mentally ill, London’s Bethlem Hospital – here fictionalized as Bedlam. The play is a pastiche Hogarthian satire in which doctors and rakes, prostitutes and the divinely inspired play out their affairs in and around that asylum. It’s a lively entertainment, but its farcical tone often jars with the subject matter. Like 18th-century voyeurs at Bedlam’s open days, we are amused but not concerned, diverted but not involved.
There are parallel storylines, given equal prominence. The first concerns a beautiful inmate, May, driven to distraction by the absence at sea of her shepherd sweetheart Billy. Leyshon also dramatizes the battle between traditional (ie, brutal, pessimistic) treatment of the mentally ill, characterized by Jason Baughan’s drunken, libidinous Dr. Carew, and the progressive ideas of new governor Maynard (Phil Cheadle). Add to these the tales of a wronged woman (Lorna Stuart) fighting to prove her sanity, and of a foppish poet womanizing his way through London’s demimonde, and you have a play that’s all subplots and no dominant narrative to get one’s teeth into.
The problem is, we don’t know anyone well enough to care about them. Perhaps it’s the Restoration comedy style; perhaps Leyshon feels that this outdoor space demands more levity than sobriety. While this tableau vivant of a production is bold of color, hearty of drinking song and has a rambunctious relationship with its audience, it never gets under its characters’ skins. Sam Crane’s would-be poet Laurence is played as a fool; likewise, Dr. Carew’s dimwit son Matthew (Joseph Timms). Carew himself is a boorish grotesque, which diminishes the play’s already one-sided argument between modern and ancient medical methods.
The play is least effective when orchestrating farcical panic after May has been kidnapped by a deranged painter in Bedlam’s basement cell. At moments like this – and later, when Billy dresses as a woman to gain access to his lost love – the pantomime comic mode feels like a misstep. Far better is when Leyshon invites us to sympathize with these troubled souls.
But if the play is spectacle at the expense of substance, at least the spectacle has vivacity. Leyshon’s dialogue is saucy and spry: in her hands, the phrase “let me address the crowds in your marketplace” becomes a lewd innuendo. And, in Jessica Swale’s production, the ensemble sequences, with their stirring songs about whoring and cuckoldry, pack a vulgar, carnivalesque punch. The depths aren’t fathomed, but there’s fun to be had on the surface.