Art and Psychology

Apr 20 2016 | By More

Rare staging for David Edgar’s Mary Barnes

The life of celebrated sixties counterculture psychologist RD Laing will be seen in a rare staging of Mary Barnes at Checkpoint on Bristo Place this week.

The play follows artist Mary Barnes’ life in 1960s London, her journey through madness and the subsequent birth of her creative career during recovery at Laing’s alternative psychiatric community at Kingsley Hall in London.

Mary BarnesDavid Edgar adapted the script in 1979, from Barnes’ memoir: Two Accounts of a Journey through madness. According to this production’s director, Daniel Omnes, Edgar says that the play hasn’t worked unless Barnes’ madness is “individually and socially comprehensible by the end of the evening.”

In other words, the play is an account of both Barnes’ personal journey and the historical context in which that journey was made in the way that “madness” was understood at the time.

The so-called ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement emerged in the 1960s, as part of the broader counterculture. It was pioneered by thinkers like Michel Foucault, Thomas Szasz and RD Laing who opposed medical authority. Their particular concern was the mainstream psychiatric profession which, at the time, was dependent on violent and coercive treatments like lobotomy, electroshock and heavy doses of drugs for treatment of the ‘mad’.

Omnes explains the background: “Between 1965 and 1970, Scottish therapist R.D. Laing and a group of his associates decided to embark upon a radical experiment for the treatment of schizophrenia whereby therapists and patients lived side by side 24/7.

egalitarian principles

“They rented out a house in East-End London called Kingsley Hall. The community they established functioned through egalitarian principles, allowing as much freedom as possible for patients to take their own paths towards recovery.”

As a social realist drama, Omnes says research for the current staging was easy, with the text itself rooting the play in 1965 with references to the likes of Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam war and the campaign against nuclear weapons. Edgar’s script also contains instructions for the score with such bands as the Beatles and the Stones in the soundtrack which contributes to its historical mood.

Sourcing props and designing a set which is in keeping with the time frame was a rather more tricky operation and took the company a lot of research to achieve. The company, led by artistic director Yvonne Zhang has completely transformed the upstairs space of Checkpoint Restaurant as a venue for the show.

It’s over 50 years since Mary Barnes first read Laing’s The Divided Self and contacted him to become his patient. But Omnes points out that while methods might have moved on over the last half century, attitudes have not always moved forward as much.


Omnes told Æ: “Although the mainstream psychiatric profession no longer uses electroshock or lobotomy, there is still a social attitude that sees schizophrenia as symptomatic of an underlying ‘disorder’, with a stigma surrounding it. It’s ingrained in our everyday vernacular…‘they’re schizo’.

“The thing is, no one really knows what schizophrenia is – there are observable behaviour patterns, and the neuroscientists are doing their best to diagnose the ‘cause’ and therefore the ‘cure’.

“However, Edgar’s play directly confronts the idea of authorising singular cures – the character Hugo at one point remarks ‘curing is what one does to bacon’. The community at Kingsley Hall operate through a praxis of letting patients take their own paths towards recovery within an extended network of support to thereby reduce pain and suffering.”

Laing’s understanding of schizophrenia was that it was the result of the various ways in which society – both the wider society and its microcosm of the family unit – is overtly and covertly repressive of the individual.

“The egalitarian principles of the therapeutic community were therefore intrinsically political,” Omnes continues. “Edgar’s play explores the internal political strains of the community in sustaining these principles.

“Moreover, it implicitly looks at how Laing’s vision of the community was calling for the dismantling of broader repressive social power structures. The play explores how the community ultimately fails both in achieving its own goals and in its wider aspiration.”


Mary Barnes
Checkpoint, 3 Bristo Place, EH1 1EY
Tuesday 19 – Saturday 23 April 2016
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets from:

The Mary Barnes Proect Facebook page: themarybarnesproject


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