The Divided Laing, Arcola Theatre, review: ‘Wise and relentless’

Alan Cox and Oscar Pearce in The Divided Laing. Picture: Adam Bennett

Alan Cox and Oscar Pearce in The Divided Laing. Picture: Adam Bennett - Credit: Archant

Caroline David joins R. D. Laing on an LSD trip that proves an enjoyably comic, if uneven, adventure.

Experimental psychiatrist R. D. Laing – once known as the ‘acid Marxist’ – famously challenged the orthodoxies of mental illness. For some the pugnacious Scot and pioneer of the anti-psychiatry movement was a guru. For others he was a brilliant mind driven to madness by too much LSD. In The Divided Laing, writer Patrick Marmion embraces Laing’s spirit of anarchy with a free-wheeling ‘what-if’ hypothesis but this ambitious play is very uneven.

It’s 1970. Laing hears that the trustees of his commune, Kingsley Hall, are threatening closure. Laing’s collaborator, Esterson [Kevin McMonagle], insists they modify practices. But Laing – portrayed as an erudite bruiser who brawls to resolve differences – refuses to buckle. When patient David [Oscar Pearce] recounts how, when on LSD, he time-travels to 2015 to find a world peopled by technology-addicted zombies, Laing uses drugs to facilitate his own journey.

In a scene that encapsulates the essence of the play, Laing debates with his alter-ego about the merits of a humane psychiatry that isn’t in the thrall of pharmaceutical companies.

Wittily subtitled The Two Ronnies, this is essentially a comic caper but the tone is wildly inconsistent. Dialogue lurches from arch comedy of manners to Men Behaving Badly sitcom.

There are also wry fantasy-projections. The most revealing insight is prompted through the apparition of Laing’s Presbyterian mother to whom he cries ‘there is an alternative to the joylessness you inflicted on me.’

Alan Cox bears a striking resemblance to Laing and conveys his complexities well. Energetically directed by Michael Kingsbury, there’s strong support from Laura-Kate Gordon as the childlike patient Mary and James Russell as fledgling psychiatrist Joe.

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Demagogue or messiah? The play offers up a humane tribute to a man whose ideas deserve lasting recognition. Like Laing it’s relentless, but there’s wisdom amongst the chaos.

Rating: 3/5

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