Morgan Stern – the clinic, madness and the mirror. (Theatre review)

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Morgan Stern

Company of Rogues and Blood Moon Theatre

23 November to 3 December

You can grab your tickets here

Photo credits – Chrissie Ianssen

“The clinic—constantly praised for its empiricism, the modesty of its attention, and the care with which it silently lets things surface to the observing gaze without disturbing them with discourse—owes its real importance to the fact that it is a reorganization in depth, not only of medical discourse, but of the very possibility of a discourse about disease.” The Rise of the Clinic – Foucault

“We are all a foreign language to each other” – The gent, Morgan Stern

That thing we call madness (mental illness) is one of the few medical conditions that still casts our thoughts “back” in time to archaic institutions where strait jackets, healing tortures, rape and other horrors were the order of the day for the people society defined as mad. It’s as if the human directly acquainted with the problem uses the past to reconcile inner conflicts, promising themselves we have come a long way and the institution is no longer the place it once was. But the automatic guilt we experience when confronted with mental illness, followed by the reductionist consolation in the separation of mind and body, should tell us that inside of us,  little has changed. There is an abjection, a tumultuous revulsion that occurs when presented with mental illness. It calls forth the most unpleasant responses in the psyches of the sane and it is these responses we most fear. If we each reflect the other, then spare me from what I might see in the curved glass as I wander through this hall of mirrors.

In her play Morgan Stern, Gina Schien reveals the mosaic nature of our relationship to mental illness. Her brother, the Morgan of the title and the body/psyche setting for the play, is a diagnosed schizophrenic. We exist in Morgan’s head, yet we are also at a distance. Our guide is a ghost of schizophrenia past, or is he one of the voices Morgan hears? The Gent, it is slowly revealed, is both these things, but he equally represents the voice in our head, the multiple sides of the observers conflicting or “split” psyche. He is from the our past, a Georgian, spawned of of Baudelaire’s modernity and Foucault’s medical gaze, but his discourse haunts societies perspective of Morgan Stern and is, unfortunately, timeless. The Gent pretends to scrutinise Morgan with a dispassionate distance, and yet he is equally haunted by his own fractured and tragic relationship to mental illness. He frequently appeals to a higher authority, a kind of spiritual overlord represented by a supposed two-way mirror planted over Morgan’s life. Who is behind that mirror? Gina Schien’s narrative flows between a spiritual overseer and a practical one. God the divine, and god the medical practitioner.

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The Gent controls the conversation around Morgan. A ghost of the enlightenment, yet refusing to see what is before his eyes. “Will you believe the emotion of your wife or the rationality of your physician” is a question posed to him at the plays climax. What we know from the story trajectory, is the wife is displaying great rationalism, while the hysteria comes from the medical discourse, but The Gent is as much a tragic victim of perspective as his daughter and Morgan. When he leaves his crying wife in her carriage to go to the gentleman’s club to play cards and drink with the men, it is not rationality he pursues, but his role in the discourse. He takes comfort in the society of men, consensus being more important than truth. He is all of us, abandoning the most interesting and vulnerable for the comfort of familiarity and the rules we pretend to abhor but obey obsessively.

Morgan Stern is a troubling, beautiful, uplifting ninety minutes that will leave you breathless at times and confused, worried and mournful during the gaps between. The first half of the play forces the audience to question the very nature of mental illness. Performer Graeme Rhodes speaking Gina Shien’s words has us question ourselves, our perception and blossoms within the idea that mental illness might be misdiagnosed creativity. Shien is too talented a writer to labour this point, but her words in the hands of director Goldele Rayment and Rhodes lead us down many meandering paths inside our perceptions. The beauty and expanse of Morgan’s mind is represented with tremendous power and scope by the three creatives on display. Tegan Nicholls Sound design is eerie and cold, perfectly matched with Roderick van Gelder’s lighting design, which floats and flickers with layered menace. What is left to us, among all this enigma is the task of discerning the roots of our fears.

Every show isn’t for everyone. Morgan Stern, nestled in the delightful back room bowels of World Bar, is a cerebral affair, couched in cogent darkness, inspiring feelings of fear and dread. It’s the sort of theatre I live for – but it aint everyone’s cuppa. However, if you like to ask yourself the hard questions and for theatre to make demands of you, this is the show.

Highly recommended.

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