Despite being increasingly discussed in all walks of life, mental health still has a huge stigma attached to it. That’s why I was strangely relieved to watch Hinged, written and directed by Boo Jackson and Tom Heath, which attacks the subject of mental health head-on. Set in 1901, Hinged explores the experiences of three women who are admitted to Bethlem mental asylum on grounds of hysteria. All three, we begin to realise, are probably not mad at all: just three women struggling to find their places in the domestic, patriarchal society in which they have found themselves trapped.
Instead of the usual dark cavern of the New Theatre performance space, the action of Hinged takes place in the Lincoln Hall Library. Instantly the dimly-lit, musty-smelling atmosphere of the beautiful but somewhat bleak old library closes in on you as if you have entered a real mental asylum. You notice the three hospital beds, two filled, one still empty. Audience members sitting in the front row remain uncomfortably aware of a white metal trolley laden with an array of mysterious-looking medications. With an engaging and talented cast, including Rachel Connolly as Georgiana, Emma Summerton as Isabelle, and Kate Maguire as Catherine, the back stories of the three inpatients begin to spill out of their hospital beds, and with it is revealed the inner turmoil each woman faces.
“Despite the early friction between the three women, their mutual hardship unites them”
Providing perfectly-timed interludes to such on-stage drama is the four-voice choir made up of Raquel Chambers, Simdi Obodosike, Katie Hayes and Tabitha Bennett, and seamlessly directed by Gwen Morris. Carefully chosen extracts from a variety of songs offers the audience of Hinged a chance to reflect briefly on the tragedy of what they have seen and heard. Lines such as ‘I have broken bones and tattered clothes, I’ve run out of time’, sung in haunting harmony, reminds us of the physical and mental trauma each in-patient at Bethlem experienced.
Initially, tensions are high in the hospital room. All three women come from very different walks of life: Catherine the elderly estranged wife of a military man, Georgiana a socially self-conscious young woman admitted to the asylum by her husband, and Isabelle: spoiled, opinionated, and rejected cruelly by her own family. Despite the early friction between the three women, their mutual hardship unites them as they all simultaneously struggle to hold onto both their identity and sanity. As the weeks pass and the enforced bed-rest begins to take its toll, we bear witness to troubling incidents like Catherine’s bed-soiling or Georgiana’s fit of almost demonic possession, executed boldly by Connolly.
“The claustrophobic setting of the hospital room leaves little room for major developments in both the plot and script”
The claustrophobic setting of the hospital room leaves little room for major developments in both the plot and script. At times, the audience is left wondering which grand worldly topic Catherine, Georgiana, and Isabelle will cover next: after all religion, sexuality, and marriage are all discussed by them in depth throughout the course of the play. However, who can blame these women: as they become more and more unhinged and grapple with their sense of right and wrong, it’s little wonder they begin to find comfort in monotony. Nonetheless, strong performances by the cast overshadow the lack of physical action. Particularly troubling is Georgina’s emotionally-wrought descriptions of her disturbing dreams, complete with haunting muttering sound effects from off-stage.
Towards the end of the play, the audience are so engrossed in the world of Hinged that they may almost believe the Nurse – played by Iona Hampson – when she tells Georgiana that her case of hysteria is a ‘severe’ one; that the doctors alone know what is best for her. But the sobering final image of Catherine holding Georgiana as she lies motionless in the hospital bed fills us with deep sadness as we remember that for its in-patients, Bethlem is a means to an end they cannot foresee. A sensitively-executed exploration into the inner workings of a mental asylum, Hinged is a harrowing yet enjoyable collaboration by two up-and-coming writers – well worth a watch.
‘Hinged’ is running at Nottingham New Theatre until Tuesday 19th April. For more information see here.