Tag Archives: mental illness

200: Find Me

8 Feb

Olwen Wymark’s play Find Me is a disturbing play about mental illness and difference. The play is based on the true story of “Verity Taylor” (not her real name), a girl who was institutionalised and locked away for behaviour which me might now recognise as belonging somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Broadmoor Hospital exterior

Broadmoor Hospital

Find Me was first produced in 1977, so in many ways it is a historical drama and I would hope that we are better now at diagnosing, treating and having compassion for people suffering from mental illness.

Wymark spent time with Verity’s parents (at the time of her writing the play, Verity was locked up in Rampton Secure Hospital) and was given in depth interviews and access to Verity’s writing. Because her contact was with Verity’s family, rather than with Verity, we see the play through the eyes of those around a girl who couldn’t be contained.

EDWARD [Verity’s father]: All children have little temper tantrums. It’s nothing – out of the way. I’ll speak to her later.

JEAN [Verity’s mother]: She doesn’t do it to you. You don’t know what she’s like. Little temper tantrums! She torments me, Edward. Last week one night when you were away she burst into the bedroom about three o’clock in the morning with the radio turned up full blast. I made her turn it off and then she started dancing and stamping around the room and butting her head against the bed pretending to be a car. I tried to take her into bed with me but she wouldn’t let me touch her.

Verity acts up, runs away and behaves in ways that are unacceptable in our society, but at no time does she seem a candidate for institutionalisation. The tragic part of this play is seeing a young girl grow up in a society that doesn’t know what to do with her, so that she is hospitalised, left bored out of her brain, and then imprisoned for the ‘crime’ of burning a chair. The final speech sums up the tragic tale:

NARRATOR: In November 1975 at the age of twenty, Verity Taylor was charged by the police with the damage of a chair by fire, value six pounds, in a locked ward of a mental hospital where she was a patient. She was remanded in custody to Holloway Prison for a period of three months. She was subsequently tried at Canterbury Crown Court and in February 1976 an order was made for her admission to a maximum security hospital. On February 24th 1976, Verity Taylor was admitted to Broadmoor from where she may not be transferred elsewhere without the permission of the Home Secretary.

As a play, Find Me works because of the lack of chronological time or conventional space. Several actors play each of the parts (five of them playing Verity), making the story universal as well as particular.

Finishing the play, my only wish was for a postscript to let me know whether Verity did make it out of Broadmoor. The thought of this high-spirited, feisty girl locked away for life is horrendous.

Publisher: Methuen (published in Plays By Women Volume 2)

Cast: 5F, 3M (can be played with more actors as all parts are doubled)

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124: Svetlana in Slingbacks

23 Jul

Valentina Levkowicz’s funny and tragic play is a pastiche of 1960s suburban Australia, Russian refugees, eccentricity, madness and aliens.

Svetlana in Slingbacks

Svetlana in Slingbacks tells the tale of a migrant family living in Adelaide in the 1960s. Boris fled Stalin’s armies in 1942 and headed for Australia, marrying single-parent Ludmilla on the way. Ludmilla’s daughter Sonya is now a gorgeous and somewhat radical uni student and her half-sister is Svetlana, a chubby 12 year old with an active imagination.

The play opens with Ludmilla recently back from hospital. She has a mental illness and believes the KGB is trying to send messages into her brain.

LUDA: But if I count to ten over and over it blocks them out. They cannot get through. Cannot contaminate. They lose their powers.

Svetlana doesn’t want her mother home: she’s an embarrassment, what with her bloodstained nightie, taking the wrong pills and saying the wrong things at the wrong time, not to mention making Svetlana the smelliest lunches to take to school and putting her cordial in a detergent bottle.

RAY: Pwoah! Struth! How do you eat that stuff?! What’s in there?! Smells like dead rabbit.

SVETA: It’s a rissole sandwich. My mum made it for me.

RAY: Why doesn’t your mum make normal things, eh? Eh? Can you hear me? Why doesn’t your mum make normal sandwiches?

The doctors have advised Boris that the next step is a lobotomy and, tragically, this ends up being Ludmilla’s fate. Boris works long hours and when he’s around his family he tends to be overly strict and dictatorial. Svetlana is made to spend hours on her knees in the toilet for a misdemeanour and Sonya is boiling over with rebellion.

The play is seen mostly through Svetlana’s eyes: so there’s a childlike naivety to a lot of the goings on and a few visits from the aliens she is sure will come to save her. The mix of magic, make believe and harsh reality makes for a whimsical and delightful experience. I wasn’t sure about the rhyming verse that opens and closes the play, but imagine it could be made to work in production without seeming too twee.

LUDA: An old black dog that barked and bit,
Lived inside my brain.
She loved the stones I threw her,
The tender bites of pain.

My doctor said,
‘Let’s put her down,
There is no hope, no cure’.
Now all is strangely silent,
She does not live here anymore.

Publisher: Currency Press (published alongside Post Felicity by Ben Ellis)

Cast: 3M, 3F