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Tomorrow I was always a lion

THE PLAY Tomorrow I was always a lion, currently showing at the Arcola Theatre in London, produced by the Belarus Free Theatre, is an innovative dramatic realisation of A Road Back from Schizophrenia, the memoir by Norwegian psychologist Arnhild Lauveng of her ten-year journey in overcoming schizophrenia.

Arnhild, the main protagonist, is played by five actors throughout the performance - which succinctly symbolises the dislocation and disassociation she experiences as a result of her illness. We are introduced to the tyrannical Captain, a manifestation of her self-loathing who violently punishes her, and then are led by Arnhild into the forest where she is surrounded by the snarling wolves that terrorise her.

Collages made of lighting gels held over concealed cameras inside a "Latin dictionary" (one of the Christmas presents Arnhild requests as a young girl - along with a cuddly toy) projects a nightmarish Grimm's forest, reminiscent of the cutout silhouettes of Polish children's book illustrator Jan Pieńkowski. Each actor holds a Latin dictionary as they enact for us one manifestation of Arnhild's memory after another. Inside the dictionary the concealed cameras capture distorted close-ups of the actor's faces - so we are both close to her anguish but also distanced from it.

The cameras are also perhaps symbolic of the paranoia that can accompany some states of psychosis: beliefs that hidden cameras are planted in the body to spy, or fears of being controlled through the fillings in teeth, are often reported by sufferers of psychosis. Tomorrow I was always a lion also follows Arnhild's travail through Norway's psychiatric system. She once spent up to a year incarcerated in a hospital and was routinely restrained - and on some occasions abused - by male staff. The long-term trauma caused by being restrained is poignantly conveyed when she says "Even today my wrists still hurt when I see policemen - which happens a lot while working as a psychologist."

As well as the creative portrayal of dislocation, a sharp ironic humour runs through the production shown in lines such as Arnhild's response to her psychiatrist's question to assess her awareness of reality: "Home is where your toothbrush is". Or her failed escape attempt as she is chaperoned around the hospital grounds - by a nurse who is also a triathlete who she can't outrun.

My only criticism of the the production overall was to ask whether it was ethical to use actual footage of an African-American woman in an alleged psychotic state being forcibly restrained by male police officers. Perhaps this use of the footage acts as a reminder to the audience that Tomorrow I was always a lion is not just an extraordinary piece of theatre but is based on actual events - much like those endured by many people in our society every day.

As we left the theatre space at the end, local campaigners handed out postcards asking us to write to our MPs to ban the use of forcible restraints in the East London mental health trust - another reminder of the crisis in care for people suffering mental illness. The production is powerful theatre, intelligent and well-realised. I was still on the brink of tears while queuing for a drink in the bar. The actors received three encores on the press night - but after giving a performance like that I can only think they deserved four.

  • Tomorrow I was always a lion is directed by Vladimir Shcherban and written by Vladimir Shcherban based on the memoirs of Arnhild Lauveng.
  • It is at the Arcola Theatre until 29 October 2016.
  • It transfereed to the Albany Theatre where it runs until 12 November.
Last modified: 25 Oct 2016 - © 2016 contributors
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