Alan Cox and
Alan Cox and Oscar Pearce in The Divided Laing. Photograph: Adam Bennett

Part of the appeal of madness for dramatists is the way that uncontrolled unconscious appetites and desires are thought to lurk so closely underneath the conscious, rational, socially acceptable world of everyday life, threatening to burst through at any minute.

Against the Apollonian forces of order and moderation struggle the wild and terrible Dionysian passions; behind the flimsy face of every unassuming Dr Jekyll is a ravening Mr Hyde.

Patrick Marmion’s new play at the Arcola, The Divided Laing, turns this fertile dichotomy on its head. It’s 1970, and the doors of perception are wide open: at any given time, someone on stage is either drunk or high on acid, or fighting, or all three.

The setting is Kingsley Hall, the counter-cultural anti-asylum set up by Glaswegian psychiatrist R. D. ‘Ronnie’ Laing as a place where, as Laing saw it, any sufferer of mental illness could come and be treated as “a person to be accepted, not an object to be changed”.

Madness – and its embrace as valid, perhaps superior, experience – is the order of the day. But manifesting at every turn are the Apollonian, Jekyll-style forces of sensible, normal, well-adjusted life, appearing in various guises: as policemen and pub landlords; as the suggestion of new ‘house rules’ for Kingsley Hall; as Laing’s elderly mother, insisting he return to the five children he has abandoned in Glasgow; and as a medical seminar happening in 2015, visited by Laing during an acid trip to the future and which through its multi-disciplinary, detailed, considered and intelligent discussion of the case in question, sounds the death-knell for everything he stands for.

At heart, The Divided Laing (subtitle: The Two Ronnies), is a sort of domestic farce, with Laing and his followers and patients staving off one crisis after another as they await the arrival of Sean Connery, who’s coming for dinner. (According to Marmion, this really happened, and it’s a nice detail – James Bond is British culture’s Dionysian hero, always drinking and chasing girls, never following the rules, always saving the day; Laing as imagined here is similar, and continually introduces himself with the formula “the name’s Laing, by the way. R. D. Laing.”).

It’s a laugh several times a minute, and if some of the historical irony of the 2015 trip stands out as a bit cringe (“they have this thing, what do they call it, ‘Google’”), it’s because Marmion’s good ear for a comic cadence is usually so perfectly shared by the play’s brilliant cast, with Alan Cox, for instance, as Laing, so accurately landing the gulp for air in a resigned, hyper-erudite line like “he means, Mary, is it too late to resist the glacial slide towards medicalised psychiatry and universal state funded compliance reinforced by a fiscal model of the patient as economic unit – or not?” as to make it laugh-out-loud funny.

The real life Laing died 26 years ago, at the same time as Communism was collapsing. Mourning for Kingsley Hall, as for the Eastern Bloc, is misplaced; but it is also foolish to look back triumphantly on both failed experiments and think how naïve their instigators must have been.

That overestimates our own wisdom. Marmion has done us a good turn with this play, as a reminder that all our radical clarity will in its turn appear comical.

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