Kliniken, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Paris

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“My parents were so normal they were abnormal,” says one of the 12 patients – a neat phrase turned on its head as this play progresses within the sterile walls of a psychiatric hospital. The real subject is the normality of abnormality, and the fine line dividing what society will put up with from the inconvenient realities it tries to shove out of sight.

It’s not the first time that Swedish playwright Lars Norén has tackled marginalisation, but this 1994 text comes unusually close to home. Aged 18, Norén started hearing voices after his mother’s death. Grief was diagnosed as schizophrenia and he was hospitalised for a year with two doctors for 400 patients.

Surely, I thought, a nearly three-hour play shaped by such memories will get bogged down in catharsis and moral indignation. But no. The patients’ personal histories are gradually pieced together with restraint and black humour, conjuring up a damning portrait of the outside world. In a vast beige atrium, without proper carers, the patients meander, talking to themselves or at others, often with great lucidity and a curious dignity, sometimes reacting violently but never sitting in judgment. One cutaway loo, one shared telly, a huge window showing a sunny landscape, even when it rains. No one looks out.

Few plays deal with mental illness, as opposed to “madness”, and a director skates on thin ice when helping actors to portray conditions ranging from anorexia to zoophilia. I’ve praised Jean-Louis Martinelli in the past for his sensitive, unshowy style and his creative exploration of controversial issues, and now I’ve got to do it again. His cast is uniformly excellent, trusting and cohesive. There’s not a whiff of overkill or voyeurism, yet the production stirs compassion and flickers of recognition. The non-naturalistic use of music – each actor stepping out of role to sing beautifully a capella (Polnareff, Streisand, “Purple Rain”) – relieves the emotional tension.

The second act feels somewhat sprawling, perhaps because, despite ourselves, we are waiting for something-linear-to-happen. The suicide, when it comes, is a non-event for those left behind.
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