Fear and loathing in Bow: new play sends R.D. Laing on an LSD trip to the future

Rehearsals for The Divided Laing. Picture: Adam Bennett

Rehearsals for The Divided Laing. Picture: Adam Bennett - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to playwright Patrick Marmion about his comedy The Divided Laing, which imagines the cult ‘60s psychiatrist taking an psychedelic trip to meet his future self.

What if a cult 60s psychiatrist who took LSD with his patients now finds himself on the verge of breakdown, taking a drug-fuelled trip to meet his future self?

That’s the premise of Patrick Marmion’s surreal comedy The Divided Laing which opens at the Arcola in Dalston this month.

The wholly imaginary scenario is inspired by real life charismatic ‘acid-Marxist’ R.D Laing and his extraordinary psychiatric community at Kinsgley Hall.

After penning his watershed book The Divided Self, Laing set up an asylum come hippy commune in East London where there was no hierarchy between therapists and patients, no locks and no drugs.

Pitched as a kind of Fear and Loathing in Bow, the play’s anti-therapy anti-hero is having a crisis of faith - just as his wild man colleague David Cooper flips out on acid on the roof. What else to do but drop a tab to sort his life out?

“There are biographical elements but I’ve mixed them up in a way that doesn’t correspond to anything that actually happened,” says Marmion. “Ronnie used LSD as a therapeutic tool with some patients to loosen the imagination and enable them to explore. I wanted to put him through the mill of his own ideas. It was interesting to imagine him having his own breakdown, to go on his own journey through madness towards some idea of healing.”

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The Kensal Green writer felt Laing was ripe for revisiting 55 years after publication of his seminal work, and 50 after the opening of Kingsley Hall.

He’s not the only one. A Laing biopic: Metanoia starring David Tennant starts filming next year.

“I had an impression of him as a hippy, a bit passé but I re-read the Divided Self and was amazed. It’s an extraordinary book. He wrote it in his 20s and it’s a philosophical work. As much an account of schizophrenia, it’s about the experience of what it is to be a conscious person.”

Viewing a clip of Laing he was struck by his potential as a great theatrical character.

“I thought he was a Swiss intellectual, but he styled himself as a Glaswegian street fighter. He was domineering and charismatic, and in the late 60s, he was the cock of the walk. The guru from Glasgow, befriended by the likes of Sean Connery.”

For his research, Marmion interviewed ex Kingsley Hall residents such as Highgate-based Dr Joseph Berke and Muswell Hill psychiatrist Dr Leon Redler. They and Laing tried to create a safe haven where people with psychosis were encouraged to embrace madness as a way of self healing.

Laing, who once called insanity “a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world” lived there for a year, but developed his theories while working at the Tavistock and living in Belsize Park.

“Laing didn’t like the old power relationship between the psychiatrist and patient in which one person had a key to get out and the other didn’t,” says Marmion.

After five years the Kingsley Hall experiment faltered, and Laing, who fathered 10 children by three wives, was later struck off by the GMC and succumbed to depression.

“He was a difficult person to live with and by the end of the hippy era his reputation seemed to fall off a cliff. He lived on a crag in the Himalayas, ran rebirthing workshops. Things were running away from him, the money situation was going down the pan. He drifted into alcoholism.”

The Divided Laing explores the crossroads moment when he could either sell out or keep faith with his radical ideas as he travels to the future and meets a future self who has made his peace with commercial psychiatry.

“In the end Laing stuck with it. I like that about him. Even though his life was a mess he stuck with the mess. There is something heroic and dismal about that.”

Since his death in 1989 his legacy of trying to sympathetically understand the dislocated minds of his patients – to see the world from their viewpoint – has been absorbed into the mainstream.

“He was against ECT and medication in favour of talking. Many of his ideas have made psychiatry more humane.

“What makes psychiatry problematic is its relationship with social discipline, but he challenged that by saying our experience is much more plastic and negotiable. He was much more accepting of the mess of humanity and thought the patient is not an object to be changed but a person to be accepted – society doesn’t have time for that message today. It wants solutions.”

Although he has worked for years as a theatre reviewer for The Evening Standard and Daily Mail, Marmion isn’t daunted by putting his own work before his fellow critics.

“I have always written, I have always done both. I want them to come.”

The Divided Laing or The Two Ronnies is at The Arcola until December 12. arcolatheatre.com