Talking Heads

More than 50 years after the founding of his most famous project, the radical treatment centre Kingsley Hall, RD Laing is attracting as much attention as ever. He is currently the subject of a play in development from writer and director Pamela Carter and the National Theatre of Scotland, and his Kingsley Hall experiences will form the basis for a forthcoming film, Mad to Be Normal, starring David Tennant. Some of the fascination Laing holds can be explained by the wild, quintessentially 1960s nature of some of his methods, some by his highly unconventional theories about mental illness, and some by the details of his personal life.

Born and raised in Glasgow’s Govanhill, RD Laing trained in psychotherapy in London and went on to develop new theories about the origins of mental illness, focusing on schizophrenia in his book The Divided Self. Laing challenged traditional ideas about diagnosis and the use of treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Downplaying the role of genetics and looking at the importance of social context in sparking mental health problems, he was strongly associated with the anti-psychiatry movement. He pioneered various treatments, encouraging patients to ‘embrace’ their impulses to madness and promoting the experimental use of psychedelic drugs.

Partly as a result of the notoriety these treatments understandably attracted, Laing’s work became well known outside the circles of psychiatry. While many of his theories are now subject to fierce critique, he is seen as having left an important and singular legacy, and his publications are still widely read today.

At the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival’s day in residence at the National Theatre of Scotland’s Home Away festival, Pamela Carter discussed the development of her play and RD Laing’s legacy with psychiatrist Dr Peter Byrne and The Herald's Keith Bruce in a session titled RD Laing: Biography and Authenticity. Before the event, Talking Heads reporter Emma Lawson spoke to Pamela about the workshop, the issues involved in developing a play about a real person and her views on how RD Laing’s life and work are perceived today.

Could you tell me a bit about the play and what it covers – are you looking primarily at RD Laing’s personal life, or focusing on his work?

I’ve tried to look at his work and him. So it’s definitely about RD Laing but I’ve tried to use RD Laing as a method of procedure, if that makes sense. Rather than say, ‘this is his life’, I’ve tried to be as RD Laing as I can while talking about his ideas and trying to understand his ideas.

I’ve realised that I shouldn’t be writing a biography – I have no right to talk about the person I’ve created as the real RD Laing and I’m certainly not saying that I’m offering any revelations about his life. […] All the sources that I’ve used are public sources, and the biggest – the greatest – expert on RD Laing is RD Laing.

At the RD Laing: Biography and Authenticity session, is there anything in particular that you want to make attendees consider?

No – I’m interested in simply hearing what people think about RD Laing and his legacy – because some people are still quite angry about him.

Yes – because his work is still quite recent, really.

Yeah, because he died in 1989. But in the 60s and 70s, he was on everybody’s lips. And then he totally dropped out of fashion through the late 70s and into the 80s. And there was a real backlash against him as well, with regard to ideas about anti-psychiatry, and there was a feminist backlash as well, and there was also a general embarrassment about aspects of his behaviour and his alcoholism.

I guess some people use his personal flaws to cast doubt on his work.

Yes, absolutely – it’s that idea of ‘Doctor, heal thyself’. But I think he’s amazing – I think it’s an amazing life and amazing work. I find it quite a shock that he disappeared so quickly – from conversations in Scotland as well – conversations about who should be remembered and who should be celebrated.

I feel like he’s rarely acknowledged as Scottish, possibly because most of his work was done in London. I remember seeing they had one of his books at Tramway during the Turner Prize exhibition, and thinking it was nice to see the link.

There’s a great film by Luke Fowler that was nominated for the Turner Prize one year, about RD Laing. Fowler is a Glasgow-based visual artist, and he made a film that was partly drawn from the RD Laing archives, but also cut together with his own filming around Glasgow. It's called All Divided Selves, and it’s a really beautiful film. When I watched it five years ago, it made me realise that I could write a play about this – that there was a different way into it that wasn’t very representational, that wasn’t traditional narrative or biopic from beginning to end.

Sometimes I wonder if Scotland might be collectively embarrassed about RD Laing. By the time we’d got to the late 60s, early 70s, he’d lost it a bit, and I think that’s what people remember. But the work he was doing in the late 50s and 60s, and how he was speaking about madness and agency and communication and understanding, which applies to all our notions and our identity and ourselves, is pretty fantastic and up there in terms of European philosophy – he’s up there with Foucault. So I’m surprised by how little he’s been celebrated, although that’s maybe changing now.

I was wondering what your thoughts were on the relationship between madness and theatre, and about representing mental health issues onstage?

I wanted to talk about Laing’s work and the journey he went on in terms of talking about madness and identity and self, so I started to work out, how do I have those discussions onstage? The way you might do it would be to have the patient and the doctor, but then how do you show someone being mad, or having the experience of madness? I started to feel very uncomfortable. […] There is this conflict between reflective, real investigation of madness and the demands of entertainment.

For a while I had one actor, who would be a patient in all different manifestations of RD Laing’s theories, but then I wanted them to be able to talk back, and it just didn’t work at all. […] That has now gone entirely, so I’m left with a play which I think will be for six actors, all of whom will be RD Laing. The idea being that everyone is clearly an actor – there’s no aspect of ‘I have to look like RD Laing’. Because also I didn’t want to write a play in which a load of middle-aged white men sit around smoking and pulling their beards while women wander around being a bit mad in the background, because frankly if you read the books, that’s really what it comes across as – so it’s how to avoid that onstage as well.

Yes – looking at Kingsley Hall, it’s interesting how his interaction with his patients seems quite gendered.

And there were no female doctors, were there?

No, it’s nearly always the man-as-doctor, woman-as-patient dynamic.

I do find it very interesting – because Laing calls himself a ‘Scottish male chauvinist pig’ […] but I don’t see him as a misogynist at all – I see him certainly as a man of his time, and of his politics, but he also he mainly treated women.

I think it’s interesting that he starts to look at society and see how society demands of the individual certain behaviours. You can see that particularly in the interviews with his female patients. What he doesn’t then make the leap to, possibly because these are women from certain socio-economic backgrounds – working-class, lower-middle-class, where their minds are very constricted, particularly in the stultifying atmosphere of the 1950s – is that possibly women were going mad because there was a disconnect between what they were allowed to be in the world and what they felt themselves to be. But he never made that leap to feminism – to say, okay, this is a patriarchal structure.

When I was researching this piece, I found it quite hard to sum up his ideas – there’s so much there that it’s difficult to simplify.

I spoke to one expert, a clinical psychologist at Maudsley Hospital who has a side-line in the history of psychiatry, and he said that for whatever idea or interest or theory you have in madness and its treatments, you can find a version of Laing to suit you. So if you are anti-establishment or anti-medicine or pro-medicine or whatever your theory is, you can use Laing and find something to fit.

by Emma Lawson

 

Home Away, the National Theatre of Scotland's festival of participatory arts, continues until Wednesday 12 October. For details and tickets visit homeaway2016.com.

Talking Heads reporter Emma Lawson reviewed Dan and Margot, ahead of screenings on Mon 10 Oct in Edinburgh and Sat 15 Oct in Glasgow. Both screenings will be followed by a Q&A with director Chloe Sosa-Sims.

The opening scene of Dan and Margot is set in a swimming pool on a sunny day. Margot walks away from the camera, while hostile whispering – at odds with the scene – fills the speakers. Then the scene shifts, and Margot explains what she heard: a voice, sometimes multiple voices, mocking and harassing her. She knew the main voice as a man named Dan, and it was only after being diagnosed with and treated for schizophrenia that she understood that his presence was a hallucination.

Dan and Margot deals with Margot’s everyday life seven years after her diagnosis: her relationship to her illness, her relationships with other people, her ambitions and her frustrations. It is an intimate portrait of a person living with schizophrenia, and very focussed on Margot herself, rather than generalising about her diagnosis.

Part of this focus is due to Margot’s bold character: she is funny, adventurous and – while sometimes guarded – often painfully honest about the impact schizophrenia has had on her life. The film follows her as she takes part in the common pastimes of a twenty-something – gigs, road trips, drinking sessions – but it also doesn’t shy away from letting her talk repeatedly about the sense that her life has been diverted. In one of the most poignant moments, she explains that she feels she has lost her sense of self: mentally because of her illness, and physically as a result of the effects of medication on her body.

One reason for the film’s intimate nature may be the friendship between Margot and co-director Chloe Sosa-Sims; during one discussion, Sosa-Sims explains to the camera why she wanted to make a film about Margot’s life, and why she wouldn’t trust anyone else to do it. The balance between portraying events honestly and respecting Margot’s privacy is managed well, with Sosa-Sims acknowledging the difficulty of making a film while being close to the subject, especially when some of Margot’s symptoms reappear.

The film’s effects help express aspects of Margot’s story: during one sequence, an anecdote she tells is illustrated by drawings. Vivid and beautiful, they emphasise the strangeness of what she experienced, helping the viewer to engage with her story. The effect of whispering recurs, enabling the viewer to experience Margot’s audio hallucinations. This is particularly effective at the start of the film, when it isn’t clear what the viewer is supposed to believe, and overall the film excels at conveying the fear and confusion Margot feels.

The film doesn’t attempt to define schizophrenia, engaging only briefly with ideas about Mad Pride and the pros and cons of medication. While the film’s focus on Margot is one of its greatest strengths, it may have been helpful if the film had spent more time exploring these issues. One of the most interesting sections occurs when co-director Jake Chirico introduces Margot to another woman who has schizophrenia, an artist called Sarafin. Margot and Sarafin’s discussion, where they relate their experiences and look at the different ways their illness presents, is fascinating and seems a genuinely positive moment for Margot.

Avoiding coming to any simplistic conclusions, the tone of the film varies when showing how Margot deals with her illness, mirroring how her attitude fluctuates throughout. At times she is very optimistic, but during bleaker moments she acknowledges that she will never be able to completely move past her illness. The film acutely emphasises how simple things – job searching, dating – are made harder for her because of schizophrenia and the associated stigma. However, acknowledging her struggles doesn’t make Dan and Margot pessimistic; Margot’s energy and determination to live the life she wants ensures that the film ends on an uplifting note.

A compassionate and realistic portrayal of the difficulties of living with schizophrenia, Dan and Margot is an intriguing film and an important one. Although there is an increasing awareness of some of the most common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, other conditions including schizophrenia remain highly stigmatised, with people who have these conditions often facing ignorance and discrimination. By presenting viewers with a real and non-sensationalised account of schizophrenia, Dan and Margot is valuable in combatting prejudice. Margot may be unique, but – as she rightly says at one point – her illness isn’t that uncommon.

by Emma Lawson

 

Screenings: 

James Gillespie's High School, Edinburgh

Monday 10 October, 7-8.45pm

Free

CCA, Glasgow

Saturday 15 October, 4-6pm

£5 | £3

Libby McArthur, best known for her role as Gina in River City, is a household name in Scotland. But there is a lot more to her than most people know about. Talking Heads reporter Colin MacGregor spoke to her about her take on mental health issues in television, the unique pressure that performers face and how closely she relates to her River City character.

There is so much more to Libby McArthur than her role in River City. She is an advocate for all things social and a spokesperson for many charities and causes, fighting fight the good fight from breast cancer to mental health. She utilises her fame to the best of her ability, which is something that I greatly admire.

In fact it was Libby’s good nature that first connected us, when I was performing at a charity event where she was the main speaker. She recognised the effort I had put into my singing and invited me to the main table to partake in some complimentary dialogue. We kept in touch and I recently contacted her to take part in this Q&A for SMHAFF.

Do you think actors should open up more to their mental health issues to help fight the stigma attached to the subject, or, do you feel most actors prefer to keep it private for fear of not landing an important role?

In an ideal world, anyone coping with a life situation that engenders fear would share more, and yes it would help people feel less stigmatised. It’s also true folk in the limelight do [face the question]: ‘Do you think actors should open up more to their mental health issues to help fight chance to make a real difference here?’ However, it must be an authentic choice for them as it ought to be for anyone.

You’re a very opinionated lady who always puts her argument across in an intelligent manner. What is your take on todays fight against the stigma of mental health?

There’s more that binds us here than separates us. I’ve often said mental health isn’t an either or thing, like two heads of a coin. It’s a linear thing with most of us having jumped back and forth along this line all our lives. There’s been times when through, loss, anxiety or any manner of old fears having been triggered, I’ve felt overwhelmed and other times when I’ve been very centered and self-resilient.

Soaps, like River City, have a great opportunity to educate via their storylines. Do you think soaps carry a responsibility to educate through their storylines about modern day issues like mental health?

Yes, I do, most do and there is a big responsibility here to make sure that the producers have done their homework and carry through these stories to their proper conclusions.

Some think that it’s nonsense, some believe it so. Do you think there is a connection to creativeness and mental health issues?

Absolutely! Any decent artist knows about vulnerability, as in they know it’s there, in that state, that the most creative stuff happens, but also that there’s a price to pay for being out there on that edge. You have to be very self-compassionate for living with that dynamic and most of us just aren’t –instead most of us are full of self-recrimination. Therefore, it can be very challenging when it comes to peace of mind.

Do you think that performers’ mental health comes under greater pressure than people in day to day jobs, where they reach such highs through performance but also have to deal with the return to normality and the fall from the pedestal?

I wouldn’t describe the storytelling work that interests me in this way [but] I do think there is a difference between acting and performing. In the entertainment business, our egos, i.e. the needy part of our personalities, ache to feel showered by others’ approval and we believe we can blossom from that kind of attention. But, ultimately, if we fail to put down roots that hold us to our common ground with others – and if we fail to realise that the storytellers’ work is about…connections…that make us feel less lonely, more known and bonded with like-minded souls – then we suffer.

If you like, it’s the difference between a script and a play. You can put one in a drawer but not the other. The difference is a company. If a good director can cast well and…a true ‘company’ is created, then you can turn your script into a play.

These next questions we’ll keep light hearted. TV or theatre? What’s your preference?

Theatre is my first love but in front of an audience or a camera there’s still the same ‘gig’ inside your head.

Growing up, did you want to become an actress or were your sights set on other vocations?

I’m so grateful for the fact that I’ve only ever known myself as a storyteller. A job that can take many forms.

How close to the character Gina in River City are you?

Not very. I think Gina is both braver and more naive than myself. She’s a simpler soul, always happy to be falling in love again whereas I daren’t. I’m also glad I haven’t been through what she has!

Finally, do you think there will ever be a proper film industry here in Scotland?

I do. I think it and other new platforms for all in our creative industries is a must for Scotland and that they will be made and properly sustained. I do believe however this work will not properly be undertaken until Scotland gains its independence.

by Colin MacGregor

 

Colin has also produced this vlog about his own experiences with mental health and why he has got involved with the Talking Heads project:

“You know who you are when you're sixteen and every year after that you become less of yourself.”

This was a theory I had when I was fifteen and in the young person’s psychiatric unit in Edinburgh – it was an indisputable truth. The anger I felt at life and the state of the world, at the adults who put me in hospital. I would never turn into one of them. This theory made sense of everything.

I didn’t have such a negative mind-set before I got ill for the first time. I was a dopey kid. I tried to see the best in life, but I was also really lonely. I didn’t have many friends, if any. Life was something that just happened to me, which is fine when you’re in primary; you’re just waiting for Santa, then the summer holidays; cut to miserable grey high school, where every decision you make will have a permanent effect on this daunting spectre that is your future; I felt like I was falling. With the help of the very traumatic experience of being bullied, I had my first breakdown.

It started quite pleasantly. All my thoughts where speeded up and I was having great ideas, ten a minute; I started to be able to see music (well I thought I did), neon ribbons appeared in the air when I heard the radio or someone whistling. I didn’t sleep or feel I needed to and felt even more awake. This is what doctors call a hypomanic episode. Soon I began to feel like the world was ending and a strong suspicion that my parents were going to have me crucified. After screaming at someone at school I was sent home and soon found myself in the back of a car, nurses at each side, being taken to the Young Person's Unit in Morningside.

Waking up that morning in the hospital, I didn’t know whether I was dead or abducted by aliens, the idea of being sectioned in a psychiatric hospital seemed the worst of all. Mental illness was a stigma long before I knew what a stigma was, the only time the subject was mentioned was when a TV character was hilariously locked in a straightjacket or labelled with the common insult – psycho. But the YPU wasn’t all that bad; it was calm and cosy and I got on with all the staff. It probably helped with my social skills as well; in the three months I was there, I made some friends.

That was 8 years ago and it took me a long time to get over it. The worst part about my recovery process was going back to school, and today I wish I’d went straight to college instead. I was heavily drugged up and in all the pictures I have of myself at that time, I have big bags under my eyes. I was anxious all the time too; I vomited at least once a day for years. I dreaded anyone asking where I’d been to when I disappeared from school and was constantly making up lies to explain my absence.

This charade went on till I was 17 and at T in the Park. I was chatting to this girl long into the night when I let slip that I’d been in hospital in Morningside. “What for?” she asked. I froze. “Were you in the YPU? My cousin has schizophrenia and was in hospital there. You should never be ashamed of having a mental illness.”

I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, how I imagine it must feel for a gay person to come out of the closet. Years of shame evaporated. And of course there never should have been any shame. I think about the bitter torn up kid I was when I was 15, and I feel for any young teenager about to take the same journey. I’m the same person as I was back then but I know more about life and have a head full of happy memories. I’ve had breakdowns since then, but every time they are a little less severe as I learn how to cope with them.

When I first made my statement about how you know yourself when you’re sixteen and every year you become less of yourself, I was talking to a French janitor who worked in the hospital, who was also an amateur filmmaker and my friend back then. He replied “Every year you’re alive you discover more of who you are”.

I agree with him now and try to live by that sentiment.

by Peter Johnstone

To launch this year's Talking Heads project, reporter Lorna Stewart has written a poem on the festival theme of Time. Look out for more articles and creative responses to festival events starting next week and continuing throughout October. 

 

The Hands of Time

 

Time is catching up with me

But I can't catch time

She stands waiting for me

But I can't see her

 

She stands alone

Separate

Apart from me

Waiting

 

Then I look at you

And time seems to flow with you

Time and you work together

Almost walking together

Time and you are friends

 

Yet for me time is passing

 

I want to hold hands with time

But time has left me

I don't know where she has gone

 

I must find her

Or what I'm doing has no place

My pace must match her

So I can catch her

 

She's going too fast

She's going too slow

She's always here

But she's disappeared

 

I'll catch her though

But at my own pace

And I'll settle in my space

With her

Settle in my place

With her

Holding hands with time

 

by Lorna Stewart