First Fortnight: Lunatic, There I Go
Ne’er A Cuckoo In Sight
January, and the eagerly anticipated First Fortnight, Ireland’s Mental Health Arts Festival, arrives in full swing. A hugely important and beneficial festival, now in its eight year, First Fortnight helps raise awareness, open dialogue, and challenge stigmatization and prejudice surrounding mental health. Its importance cannot be overstated. And yet, when it comes to the theatrical productions on offer in the festival, there’s a need to separate, to critically engage with the works as works and not solely in terms of the importance of their message. No matter how important that message may be. Or rather, precisely because it is so important. Not always easy. Gill McCaw’s latest play, “Lunatic, There I Go,” being a case in point. Adapted from Hanna Greally’s 1971 autobiographical novel, Bird’s Nest Soup, “Lunatic, There I Go,” is a case of the road to hell being lined with good intentions. Following a concept by performer Andrea Scott, “Lunatic, There I Go” is certainly a labour of love with a deeply important message to convey. But it’s a tale that labours its love far too often, and in the end becomes seriously hard work.
It’s been said that when a parent sends a child for counseling or psychiatric help, it’s very often the parent themselves who’s more in need of the help. Such seems the case in “Lunatic, There I Go,” in which 19 year old Hanna Greally is sent to St Loman’s Psychiatric Hospital, Athlone, for a short rest by her mother, and remains locked up for 18 years during the 1940’s and 1950’s. All because Mammy, and later Hanna's brother, have their own self-serving interests, financial and otherwise. Yet the real issue is not the family’s heartlessness, but rather a system and society that enabled them to do this.
If you’re expecting One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, “Lunatic, There I Go” isn’t it, having none of its humour, or real sense of horror, even if it is topped and tailed by the sound of birdsong. Instead, we get a pretty sanitized psychiatry, feeling like the psychiatric equivalent of an Ireland’s Own article, but with little of its charm. While the idea at the heart of “Lunatic, There I Go” is certainly horrific, McCaw’s overwrought and over thought script doesn’t do the tale, its character, or the experience enough justice. Poor and heavy handed exposition, that omits too many essential details, married to constant interruptions by secondary characters, mean we struggle to engage with Hanna in any meaningful way beyond seeing her as an uninteresting voice repeating an interesting tale in an uninteresting fashion. A problem compounded by the narrative voice of Hanna as character being lost to the narrative voice of McCaw the playwright, whose overworked, prosaic language keeps Hanna locked firmly behind McCaw’s words. A situation further compounded by secondary characters often being far more engaging and speaking with greater credibility. In the end, “Lunatic, There I Go” often feels like wading through treacle, always trudging at the same unrelenting pace.
If consultant director Aoife Spillane-Hinks keeps everything plodding at the same unvarying pace, she elicits an extraordinary performance from Andrea Scott, most memorable when she’s playing secondary characters. Indeed, Scott alone is worth the price of admission, her passion and belief in the subject being palpable. Yet you’re left with the sense of what could have been had Scott had a stronger script to work with. Theatrically, too, the sense of what could have been dominates, with Spillane-Hinks’ direction not being as innovative or imaginative as it might have been. In the end, efforts to highlight key moments like ECT treatment fall flat and unconvincing, sapped of their power, with too many moments looking like tricks and gimmicks, screams feeling like a forced device rather than an experience felt. Sequences of clever projections are underused at the beginning and throughout. But they vastly over stay their welcome, and ditch their originality, for an uninspiring photo album reel at the end.
In a post Magdalene Sisters, The Blue Boy, THEATREclub and ANU landscape, where tales of societal and Government supported institutionalization of people have been handled far better, “Lunatic, There I Go’s” theatrical and dramatic inadequacies are far too obvious. Ultimately “Lunatic, There I Go” doesn’t offer any real insights into its subject matter, and little into its central character. A post show discussion after each performance will hopefully fill in the many blanks left by McCaw’s hugely problematic and self serious script. One that sees Scott deliver some powerful and compelling moments. Even if, ultimately, “Lunatic, There I Go,” falls short of its own well-intentioned, and hugely important ambitions.
“Lunatic, There I Go” by Gill McCaw, concept by Andrea Scott, based on Bird’s Nest Soup by Hanna Greally, runs as The Civic Theatre, Tallaght, as part of First Fortnight, Irelands Mental Health Arts Festival, until January 6th