Friday, 18 February 2011


Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham
21 March, 2002

Henry Miller beat RD Laing to the epigrammatic punch when he claimed that “everybody becomes a healer the moment they forget about themselves”. Even so, no idea is more germane than this to the theoretical and practical ‘art of living’ proposed by the latter, the equally celebrated and maligned advocate of a personal and social “spiritual revolution” to be forged, principally, through what he called “ego-loss”. So, quite what Laing himself would have made of his potential canonisation in Mike Maran’s one-man ‘biodrama’ – described in the program notes as “the story of the Scottish pop-shrink, rebel, yogi, philosopher and healer” – can only be guessed at.

Well, taking such a guess, he would, I think, have approved, for Maran, once a student on a course convened by Laing, presents an unsentimental account of the hard-drinking working-class intellectual in which his failures, neuroses, excesses and flaws are counterposed to (and overlap with) his breakthroughs, successes, his compassion and tangible joie de vivre.

Perhaps appropriately for a portrait of a man who laboured to drag schizophrenia and other acute psychotic illnesses from the darkness of suspicion and stigmatisation (Laing considered mental distress to be a normal reaction to an insane world), Maran’s delivery skilfully blends into the ‘monologue’ a variety of personae, using his own/the narrator’s voice alongside those of Laing himself, his forbidding mother, professional rivals, ‘patients’, friends, and others. This combination of multi-voicedness and the absence of hagiographic airbrushing steers the web of anecdote, opinion, biography, and intellectual enquiry well clear of the ‘cult of personality’, while Maran’s soft, deliberately slurred Caledonian burr adds to the authenticity and intimacy of the performance, no small achievement considering the almost excessively pristine, half-full (half-empty?) auditorium – evidently, no skim-reading K.D. Laing fans made it – of Nottingham University’s spanking new Djanogly Theatre.

We begin with an almost delirious recollection of Laing’s funeral (well attended by his many professional opponents and detractors, who’d turned up “just to make sure”…) at which the ashes were sequestered by Christians when the cortege was split up at traffic lights, leaving his secular nearest-and-dearest too late to prevent a sanctified burial yet just in time to drop expertly distilled miniatures on the departing traveller’s vessel.

Tales flowed as the gangly Maran shuffled around stage, between bar, grand piano, and bottle-green, studded leather psychiatrist’s chair, transporting us – via grudging and bilious obituaries – back to his upbringing in Govan and the distant mother, then on through medical school, clinical work, his development as a psychiatrist, his marriages, the debates with the “Freudians, post-Freudians, neo-Freudians, and neo-post-Freudians”, brushes with the law, marginalisation from mainstream psychiatry and increasingly unorthodox (and successful) treatment methods which rejected the overly authoritarian and impersonal doctor (= scientist, expert) / patient (= object) relationship in favour of old-fashioned companionship.

While whisky and polemics were never too far from the narrative, neither also was a sense of Laing’s openness and sympathy, a lack of ego that gave him the best chance of succeeding as a therapist (the word, we are told, deriving from the Greek ‘to listen’). This was never more evident than in an encounter with a teenage catatonic-schizophrenic girl, mute for over a year, a period largely spent sat cross-legged in a padded cell, naked and swaying from side to side. Laing visited the institution in which the girl was being housed and managed to convince the authorities there that he should be allowed access to her cell. Upon entering, seeing her sat there, naked, he immediately disrobed and, sitting cross-legged opposite her, began to sway from side to side in harmony with her movements. Twenty minutes later the girl was speaking for the first time in over a year. Not exactly textbook.

The production finished with Maran sharing the pianist, David Milligan’s stool, singing a heartfelt, slightly maudlin, yet still optimistic ditty urging us to live our lives. Sounds trite, I know, but how many of us do? I mean really do? Ronnie Laing certainly did. He made mistakes, sure, but then he also took risks: professional, financial, existential. Not for him the preciousness and paranoia of self-obsession and interiority; he struggled, he listened, he gave, he loved, and most of all, he lived. Little wonder Maran was impressed.

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