Belarus Free Theatre: Tomorrow I was Always a Lion

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Belarus Free Theatre’s Tomorrow I was Always a Lion is a stage-adaptation of Arnhild Lauveng’s memoir of the same name, which deals with her experience of psychosis. It played at the Arcola Theatre 19-29 October 2016. Review by Dolly Sen.

Cast of Belarus Free Theatre's Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion.

Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion. Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

Belarus Free Theatre has been banned by their native country on political grounds, and are now in exile in the UK, performing hard-hitting pieces linked to social justice. Vladimir Shcherban, of Belarus Free Theatre, had previously directed Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis and wanted to have a more hopeful answer to that work, choosing Arnhild’s Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion.

Arnhild’s memoir recounts her experiences developing psychosis, then her brutalising institutionalisation and rejection of her as a feeling, thinking human being, and finally her recovery to become the psychologist she now is.

I have not read the book before and I have to say when I saw the play described as a woman recovering from schizophrenia, my heart sank, because of the contentious and debatable nature of the terms ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘recovery’. Although those concepts weren’t explored in the piece, it was still nonetheless a brilliant, devastating piece of theatre.

A scene from Belarus Free Theatre's Tomorrow I was Always a Lion

Tomorrow I Was Always a Lion at the Arcola
Photo: Marilyn Kingwill

The five actors each play Arnhild in different parts of the piece, along with the other roles of mental health professionals and voices. It was the representation of psychosis that stunned me. The audience could not flee from the visceral smother of hearing voices and visions brought to life by powerful physical acting and intelligent stage direction. The audience shares the same attack of psychosis and the brutalisation of the system as Arnhild. You don’t get to physically escape the experience. I didn’t feel so lonely.

Apart from control and restraint, it also highlighted the subtle tyranny that you cannot do anything right as a mad person, that you are consistently presented with lose-lose situations by mental health services; with the inevitable unsuccessful outcomes as proof of your madness and that you need their personal and physical violence, ahem, I mean care.

The play gave the squeezing shoes of enforced empathy to the audience members so they couldn’t deny the lostness and violence mad people experience. I thought it was the best representation of psychosis in theatre I have ever seen.

What was jarring about the piece is Arnhild’s acceptance of schizophrenia as a purely medical condition, and recovery as a happy ever after, when it is not that for so many people. The play doesn’t show the road to recovery can be pitted with its own alienation and ambivalent carnage.

Recovery isn’t about people living their dreams or having less distressed lives; it’s about reducing us as an economic burden. Belarus Free Theatre couldn’t change Arnhild’s story because it is hers, and I can’t change it either. But I just wish there was more theatrical exploration of the social and political context of madness and how the world treats difference.

Belarus Free Theatre, however, is political theatre and so seeks to go beyond the play, with the work’s resonance. To this end, there is an after show event after each performance. I have been asked to do two of them, and the audience is also invited to send a postcard to local health authorities to ask them to investigate the reasons for the overuse of face-down restraint.

I have seen some other reviewers puzzled at this, as Arnhild states if there weren’t restraint she wouldn’t be alive. But some reviewers miss the point that it is used punitively to shut a person up and not as a last resort. My old mental health trust can claim a body count because of that procedure, as can many other mental health trusts.
A newspaper critic asks of this work: can theatre ever convey the arduousness of treating mental illness? No, but Belarus has gone a little way in conveying the arduousness of being treated for ‘mental illness’. Good on them.

Tomorrow I was Always a Lion is currently on at The Albany, including a relaxed performance on 10 November and a BSL-interpreted performance on 11 November.