Tuesday 26 April 2011

Syrups, Drugs and Holy Prayers

Just back from five days in Bristol over Easter. The weather has been stunning and seemingly every Bristolian has been sitting out on the grass or the old dock sides consuming picnics and cider.

We are outside too most of the time but take in a performance of The Comedy of Errors by the resident company in the Tobacco Factory Theatre. I've seen their productions before and this one is up to their excellent standards, giving depth and feeling to what can seem a slight and rather silly play. But in the tradition of this blog I must now artificially draw out the mental health interest...

In fact none of the characters has a significant mental health problem but (before you sigh with relief that this post won't bang on too long) there is significant interest because all four main characters (two pairs of identical twins each pair improbably sharing the same name - so two called Antipholus and their servants two Dromios) are misdiagnosed as psychotic and attempts made to restrain them and compel them to treatment. The mistaken diagnosis arises because of confusion between the identical twins, leading them to appear to act irrationally (but I won't try to explain the plot).

In a key scene one of the Antipholuses' wife brings a psychiatrist Dr Pinch plus burly attendant nurses to "section" Antipholus which he duly does, sweeping up one of the Dromios as well on a snap diagnosis. Shakespeare certainly didn't waste his time researching the equivalent of the Mental Health Act operating in Ephesus where the play is set so he is probably describing what he thinks might happen in Elizabethan England. It is not clear precisely what legal instrument the doctor uses to detain his patients but his diagnostic tool-set is rather limited:

Mistress, both man and master is possess'd;
I know it by their pale and deadly looks

And his proposed course of treatment looks cautious and unambitious:

They must be bound and laid in some dark room

Later on the other Antipholus is "voluntarily admitted" to a hospital where the Abbess (actually the Antipholuses' mum but nobody realises this until later) describes her therapeutic approach which looks a lot bolder, combining both medication and talking therapies:

Be patient; for I will not let him stir
Till I have used the approved means I have,
With wholesome syrups, drugs and holy prayers,
To make of him a formal man again

Fortunately the Abbess doesn't get around to using these treatments before the misunderstanding is cleared up. Meanwhile the other two patients overpower Doctor Pinch and set fire to his beard in revenge for his hasty and inaccurate diagnosis and less than empowering care and treatment plan. This turning of the tables certainly offers some cathartic if cruel satisfaction to anybody in the audience who has suffered unfair treatment at the hands of mental health services...


Cycling to Bath and back, an annual ritual, is less painful than I feared but why does fat move in middle age from its useful location on your backside - providing a portable cushion ideal for bike saddles and other hard seating - to the pointless one on your stomach? Evolution (or a benevolent Creator - take your pick) seems to have slipped up on that one.