As part of the Cultural Programme students and staff from the LANS Community went to see Joe Penthall’s Blue Orange at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Photo: Myah Jeffers

Two actors, seated, in discussion.

Set in a psychiatric hospital, Blue Orange tackles mental health and institutional racism in modern Britain. The play centres around Christopher, a young man who is sectioned and admitted to a psychiatric hospital, and follows discussions between him, his doctor and a senior consultant as they debate the cause of his psychosis and disagree about his course of treatment. Below we hear from staff and students about their thoughts on the play:

Thoughts from Dr. Mircea Scrob, LANS Tutor and Teaching Fellow:

A patient with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (psychotic and neurotic). A person caught (as in the image above) between a senior psychiatrist with a ‘psychotic’ tendency to cram reality into the straitjacket of his grand theory in pursuit of academic grandeur and a junior psychiatrist with a ‘neurotic’-like behavior when his attempts ‘to do good’ and, above all, achieve his career goals are frustrated. In between, the patient’s needs and interests are discarded, at the margins rather than the centre of a system broken by egos, self-interests and (the all too common) inadequate resources.

Two actors on a stage

Photo: Myah Jeffers

And a broken system it is, in which the incentives for professionals/administrators can be at odds with the interests of the patients, which is set up to reward managerial practices that ‘optimally’ utilize scarce resources such as beds by turning away patients who would clearly benefit from institutional support, conveniently justified by innovative curative approaches through reinsertion in the community, an oversight system crippled by cumulation of functions (consultant cum dissertation supervisor cum member of oversight board) and informal networks, all on top of a diagnostic toolkit/knowledge system perceived as liable to subjectivity and with arbitrarily-defined categories. Suggestive for the latter was the back and forth between the 2 experts in their discussion of the diagnosis, the theme of the diagnoses/conditions being culturally determined, the slide into ‘neuroticism’ of the young psychiatrist (or anyone, perhaps) when pushed enough. Not wishing to spoil the play for whomever wishes to see it, let me just say that, for me, the final act was a powerful illustration of how this broken system reproduced itself by being able to reward those belonging to it, co-opting them and, thereby, quelling any chance of it being reformed from the inside.

Definitely go and see Blue Orange if you have the chance - it is excellent - but be forewarned: do not expect answers from it but rather thought-provoking dramatizations of weighty dilemmas in today’s society. And do not expect heroes and villains: the strength of the play comes from nuancing the motivations of its characters, either with a shade of fault (the junior psychiatrist showing by the end the limits of his idealism) or of compassion (the senior consultant face-to-face with the realization that his life-long magnum opus might have been built on shaky theoretical foundations).

Three actors on a stage. One seated.

Photo: Myah Jeffers

Thoughts from Verity Parkin, Second year student:

I’m majoring in Psychology so it was interesting to see the types of discussions that I often read about in textbooks actually dramatised on stage. It brought home the complexity of decisions involved in mental health and diagnosis. By showing the gradual breakdown of the doctor and the insecurities of the senior consultant it emphasised mental health as a sliding scale and illuminated the issues that come with one human diagnosing another. It is impossible for someone to step outside of the human experience, and therefore it is difficult for someone to reach an objective conclusion about the mental state of another. This, along with the gravity of labelling, is something I thought the play dealt with very well.

Photo: Myah Jeffers

Production shots.