The Globe’s first female playwright

When the original Globe theatre was built, women weren’t even allowed to act, never mind write the plays. It’s taken a while to remedy the situation. But next week, 411 years after the theatre first opened, a play written by a female playwright will finally make it onto the Globe stage.

That woman is Nell Leyshon, who seems to be handling the challenge (and attendant attention) with the chipper pluck of a swimmer breaking the ice before a dip. Does she feel the weight of history on her shoulders?

“I don’t know what I feel,” she says, with cheerful candour. “I feel the weight of something. I just want everyone to enjoy the play regardless of the fact whether it was written by a man or a woman.”

Leyshon is an elegant 48-year-old with a distinct mischievous streak. For her debut at the Globe, she is turning the theatre into a madhouse, undaunted – or perhaps encouraged – by the sort of ribald remarks she might provoke. Her play, Bedlam, draws its inspiration from the famous Bethlem Royal Hospital as it was in the 18th century and the action rolls forward in a London sodden with gin (the city was in the grip of the craze so vividly portrayed in Hogarth’s print “Gin Lane”). The theatre will teem with people in extremis and the drama, peppered with song, dance and brawling, should be a rambunctious, comic affair.

But while Leyshon was keen to fill the Globe with life – “I think here, more than anywhere, you’re writing for the building” – and determined to avoid numbing minds and backsides with a starchy historical drama, the kernel of the play is serious. She was aghast at the fact that in the 18th century members of the public could pay to gawp at asylum inmates: “at the most vulnerable time of their lives they were open to mockery”.

Her play follows the journey of one newcomer to the then-notorious hospital and details the way patients were treated: physical remedies such as purging, bleeding and shaving had little chance of curing their psychiatric ailments. Her characters are fictitious, but some are inspired by real people.

“In the 18th century, Bethlem was controlled by about four generations of the Monro family,” she explains. “They pretty much had a monopoly on the chief physician role. So they kept Bethlem down really, in terms of development. And in the meantime people were starting to question. There was Doctor Battie – which is where we get the term ‘batty’ – who was a bit more compassionate, who set up St Luke’s lunatic asylum. He was beginning to publish his findings and he had students.”

But though 18th-century treatments may shock us now, Leyshon says she had to guard against rushing to judgment. “It’s very important not to judge them as being cruel people. There were some very good people who were compassionate and felt deeply for their patients. I hope that that will show in the play.”

During the course of her research, Leyshon consulted the archives of Bethlem Hospital, which she describes as “haunting”, and visited the contemporary hospital in Bromley, south London. There she spoke to patients in the secure unit. She was struck by their intelligence and openness, but also by the acute loneliness of some of their predicaments.

“It was a revelatory day,” she says. “It was quite incredible. It was like going to a country you had never been to before. To be able to talk to these lucid, rational people about how it is to be psychotic ... The people I visited had committed crimes – some had murdered someone while they were ill. One of the terrible things is that in the treatment, as you regain your sanity and come back to the place where you started off, you have to address what you did while you were ill. And that was really the most shocking thing for me to realise. What they have to come to terms with on their journey towards getting better is awful.”

The hospital “jumped at the chance of being involved”, says Leyshon. Some patients met the cast, and a psychiatrist not only read Leyshon’s script and gave a diagnosis for each of the characters, but will also attend a dress rehearsal to offer helpful notes.

The hospital’s support for the project is perhaps indicative of the fact that, although attitudes towards mental illness have improved, many of us still shy away from talking about it. And the play, though it distances the issues through period setting, may encourage audience members to empathise with sufferers and to examine their own feelings.

Bedlam joins an impressive list of dramas that deal on some level with psychiatric disorders, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. Some, such as Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, with two wildly different acts, and Sarah Kane’s painfully moving 4.48 Psychosis, use drama to give the audience some inkling of what a condition feels like.

Why does Leyshon think playwrights take on such a difficult subject? “I think it’s our great fear,” she says. “The idea that your identity is quite precariously built. I think your role as a playwright is to be other people: to discover things in yourself that you can use in order to construct someone else. So if we take that to an extreme, we need to go to those extreme places.”

Leyshon warms to a challenge. Though her previous work (such as Comfort me with Apples, Glass Eels and The Farm) has been on a much smaller scale, she has welcomed the demands of the Globe with its open roof and multiple tiers of audience.

“You have to embrace the space and you have to people it,” she observes. “You have to write a huge number of characters. And playwrights now are not used to doing that: we start off doing tiny plays. So you have to say. ‘OK, I’m now going to have to develop a whole new toolkit.’ You realise that subtext isn’t really going to work here, tension isn’t really going to work here, and you have to have a story.

“Story has become quite unfashionable,” she adds. “Theatre’s very driven by fashion ... It’s very gladiatorial, writing for theatre. You have to be prepared for public failure. You have to hold your nerve.”

Leyshon began her writing career as a novelist and came to playwriting relatively late – she wrote her first play at the age of 40. But now she is hooked.

“I still love writing prose, but in theatre I can cut out all the stuff that’s quite agonising to write,” she says, laughing. “I love people talking to each other ... I feel I would still write plays even if they were never put on.”

She is a tough judge of her own work. She made a bonfire of her earliest novels because she felt they weren’t good enough. But in the theatre, she is aware that her ultimate judge is the audience. “I have had many evenings in the theatre when I have not been entertained. I want to entertain. I want people to say, ‘Well, it was worth the ticket price, and the babysitter and the drink we had on the way.’”

‘Bedlam’ is at Shakespeare’s Globe, London from September 5.

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