Page last updated at 09:32 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Play lifts lid on mental health abuse

By Geoff Adams-Spink
Age & disability correspondent, BBC News website

The incarceration of women in psychiatric hospitals, for social rather than medical reasons, is the subject of an award-winning piece of theatre now on tour in the UK.

Photo of the three characters in the Idiot Colony
Dialogue is minimal - a great deal is conveyed physically

The Idiot Colony is set in the hairdressing salon of a Midlands mental hospital in the 1980s and is based on the testimonies of patients and staff from several institutions.

It tells the story of a married woman who fell in love with a black US serviceman during World War II.

It was her own mother-in-law who had her "committed" because of the social embarrassment.

The character, Joy, remains in the hospital for decades.

Another character was admitted after being raped by one of her school teachers and getting pregnant.

The third character does not speak at all - presumably traumatised by some episode in the past and the dehumanising regime in the hospital.

The idea for the Idiot Colony came from the father of cast member Claire Coache.

He used to repair hairdressing equipment and - while working at a psychiatric hospital in the West Midlands - was told the story of an inmate who had been sent there after having an affair with a black American airman in the 1940s.

'Outraged and intrigued'

A lot of men were uncomfortable with female sexuality - even some women were jealous or disturbed by other women
Writer Lisle Turner
"Claire's father told her that story and she was outraged and intrigued in equal measures, " said Coache's husband, Lisle Turner, who wrote the Idiot Colony.

His research revealed the systematic use of psychiatric institutions to remove women from society who were considered immoral or embarrassing.

"It's a terrible, untold crime that had been committed against women for generations," he said.

"One of the worst cases I read about was a woman who was locked up for 'having the strange habit of going for long walks on her own'."

He says that once admitted, the women very quickly developed all of the symptoms of someone with a mental illness because the regime was often so brutal and dehumanising.

The thread that linked many of these cases was sex.

"Almost every story that we came across contained a sexual element of some kind," said Turner.

"In a society that was very repressed about these things, a lot of men were uncomfortable with female sexuality - even some women were jealous or disturbed by other women who could more freely express their sexuality."

The play itself uses minimal props, sparse dialogue and relies heavily on visual representations of the characters' emotions.

Some of the scenes are close to dance in their careful choreography.

The use of white towels for a variety of purposes - together with careful lighting - allows the production team to achieve a lot with very little.

For example, one of the patients is bathed by two nurses, using a backlit towel, the silhouette of the actor's body and a bucket of water to great effect.

At times the simple addition of a nurse's white cardboard hat is sufficient to transform the patient into a member of the hospital staff.

Overt sexuality

Each of the characters wears a simple, white regulation gown, but these are sufficiently fitted at the waist that they can pass for 1940s dresses in different lighting.

The music is a mixture of Glenn Miller big band numbers, 1980s hits played in the hairdressing salon and original composition.

For Cassie Friend - who plays Joy, the character besotted by GI Earl - the biggest challenge was having to be so overtly sexual.

"That's always quite an intimidating thing to play on stage," she said.

As time goes by, Joy clings to her brief memory of Earl giving her her first orgasm as they sat watching a Rita Hayworth film at the cinema.

She even goes as far as to cover her skin in black make up to remind herself of what he looked like.

The system responds harshly - destroying her character in the process.

According to Lisle Turner, psycho-surgical practices like lobotomy were very experimental and yielded little or no benefit, apart from making a patient more docile.

"If treatments like this had been given to people who were not classed as being in some way 'mentally ill' it would have been called torture," he said.

The Idiot Colony plays at Plymouth's Theatre Royal from 3-7 February. It will play at Aberdeen's Lemon Tree and The Tron in Glasgow during April.

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