Curious Theatre Branch

The question of who is insane and who is not has always been a rich source of material for writers. In The Ruling Class, Peter Barnes uses the question of his protagonist’s sanity to lampoon British society: when the protagonist thinks he’s Jesus, everyone believes he’s crazy; when he becomes convinced he’s Jack the Ripper, he’s deemed fit to join the House of Lords.

Anton Chekhov uses a similar tactic in his short story “Ward No. 6,” about an idealistic doctor who attempts to reform a badly run mental hospital. In the process he befriends an articulate inmate who challenges all of the doctor’s cherished beliefs. Eventually the sensitive doctor goes mad–or is merely judged to be mad by those who run the hospital. Chekhov leaves this point frustratingly ambiguous.

“Ward No. 6” was reportedly enthusiastically received in its time, prompting artist Ilya Repin to write Chekhov: “It is incomprehensible how out of such a simple, unpretentious story . . . there emerges such an irresistibly profound . . . idea of mankind.” Even Tolstoy, whose theories Chekhov mocked in “Ward No. 6,” is said to have liked the work.

Jill Daly’s adaptation of Chekhov’s story, currently running at the Curious Theatre Branch, might receive similarly enthusiastic reviews–if this were a different time. But at this point those who do not openly resist experimentation seem too tired, too jaded, too overwhelmed by ten years of conservative backlash to appreciate new ideas (or new twists on old ideas). I fear Daly’s intelligent and innovative take on Chekhov’s text will be ignored. And that would be a shame.

Daly, who is both adapter and director, has refused to follow blindly the path carved by the City Lit Theatre, which often transposes a literary work to the stage word for word. True, City Lit has proved quite adept at this kind of translation from page to stage; but others, hoping to steal its fire, have been considerably less successful. Daly has instead completely reconceived Chekhov’s work, tossing out all but its bare outlines–kindly nonconformist doctor befriends inmate and suffers consequences. She’s written her own original dialogue and restructured the story so that all the action takes place either at the asylum or in the doctor’s study.

Further, she directs all the scenes in the asylum to give them a mad, expressionistic quality: inmates twitch and leap about, shout, bang on the walls, or walk around their beds in weird formal configurations (choreography by Timothy Buckley). These moments would never in a million years be confused with a realistic portrayal of life in a 19th-century Russian insane asylum. They do, however, work within the world of the play, fully conveying subjective mental states. Daly also includes a scene in which the doctor’s inmate friend sits brooding on his bed while the other inmates pluck from their bedsprings strange insectlike sounds–making audible the gears turning in the inmate’s overheated brain. Later we get the strongest indication that the doctor is losing his mind from a frenetic sequence staged in the middle of the ward in which the doctor and his friend act out a tour of Paris.

This production is only by the loosest definition faithful to Chekhov’s original. But that hardly matters. As social criticism, Chekhov’s story is quite dead. The unjust social structures he criticized have been replaced by an unjust society of a very different type. And in the medical world, theory and practice have changed so much over the past 100 years that, as my mother the psychiatric nurse pointed out, “No one treats patients like that anymore.”

What does matter is how well the adaptation works in production. And Ward 6 works incredibly well, in large part because Daly the adapter is so well served by Daly the director. Her decision to redesign the Curious Theatre’s performing space so that the audience sits along two walls of the asylum–effectively locked into the ward with the patients–is a marvelous touch. We cannot help but be drawn into the story from the start.

Ward 6 is also well served by its cast of Curious Theatre regulars. As a bureaucracy-minded hospital official Beau O’Reilly displays remarkable range, equally at home getting laughs with various perplexed facial expressions and inciting our anger when he turns against the doctor and his attempts to understand the inmates.

It’s Brian Shaw as the doctor who really shines, however. The way he shows how the doctor is changed by his friendship with the inmate is remarkably subtle and restrained. At no point are we sure whether he’s really going mad or whether he’s been shattered by the realization of the truth of the glib joke he makes early in the play: “If we didn’t have insane asylums, we wouldn’t know who was sane.”