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Dark humour freshened up with mobile phones and industrial language
Henry IV, Out Of Character, York Theatre Royal Studio, Thursday and Friday, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk WHAT is normal behaviour and what is normal theatre?
Out Of Character is a community company, whose members have experienced mental health issues and have found expression on stage through a project mounted by Bootham psychiatric hospital, Leeds and York Partnership NHS Trust and the Converge course at York St John University.
You may argue that this separates the company from other theatre performers, and yes, the project has a therapeutic role, but Theatre Royal artistic director Damian Cruden has always said that the Theatre Royal is for everyone, a credo that applies to performers and audiences alike.
What’s more, the benefits of theatre that apply to a youth theatre apply equally to Out Of Character’s disparate group of performers. In a nutshell, they learn about discipline, structure, teamwork and individual expression and group goals, as well as developing skills that can be useful in the outside world and acquiring a sense of purpose.
This week’s production of Luigi Pirandello’s 20th century study of madness, Henry IV, comes with a programme statement that Out Of Character “makes challenging work for inquisitive audiences with the aim of transcending the boundaries of modern theatre and your perceptions of mental health, claiming the territory between inspiration and medication”.
For sure, that is not a “normal” mission statement for a theatre company and nor is the “territory between inspiration and medication” one that is commonly found in theatre, but rather than dwelling on normality, it is better to acknowledge that Out Of Character can bring something different to the stage.
The company focuses on either devised pieces that consider mental health issues or productions of plays or writings that have such issues at their heart. Interestingly, for this collaboration with York Theatre Royal, the performers have worked with the Theatre Royal cast for Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, another play with mental illness at its core, and in return for advice on performance skills, the Out Of Character cast could bring personal experience to assessing the veracity of Penhall’s play.
Boosted by funding from Arts Council England and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Pirandello’s Henry IV takes the company to new heights, building on its previous production at the Theatre Royal in 2010, Tales From Kafka. Whereas that show was a series of short pieces, Henry IV is a full-length play, adapted by Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster in tandem with the cast.
Forster’s production plays on the individual character of each cast member but plays to theatre’s usual rules too. This makes for an honesty of performance and rightly so, for what would be the point of smoothing out the rough edges to make a piece of theatre just like any other?
The show poster says Out Of Character does not so much “present” Henry IV as “dissect” it, and consequently it feels more personal, performed by those with an understanding of Henry’s mental turmoil and his “profound philosophy about the fragile nature of the human condition”.
A few lines are fluffed or need a prompt, and if that troubles a “normal” theatre-goer, then look at the bigger picture: the collective achievement of putting on this production against the backdrop that Henry faced too: a “society making arbitrary value judgements on individual behaviour” when defining madness and sanity.
Christian Foster’s Henry, Tom Nightingale’s Bertold, Giles Moorhouse’s Belcredi and Sharon Benson’s Doctor are among those who bring out the dark humour of Pirandello’s play, freshened up with mobile phones and industrial language.