An intense exploration of mental health through the eyes of a paranoid schizophrenic, Schiz – the latest production from Norfolk-based production company Moss Banks Productions – is an astonishing and memorable piece of theatre.
This short play – running a little over an hour – tells the story of Benjamin Teel (Alexander Banks), a young man in constant combat with voices in his head (Tom Denny and Megan Artherton), and his relationship with his new psychiatrist Carolyn Wakefield (Laura Williamson). Expertly highlighting both the internal and external conflicts mental health issues can have on sufferers and those around them, Schiz is all at once bold, theatrical and visually strong, while also being truthful, heartfelt and passionate.
With its non-linear structure incorporating flashbacks, flashforwards and dreamscapes, the play extracts the maximum amount of drama from a simple story. The effective use of sound effects, music and striking lighting design by Simon Moss combine with a minimal set to create atmospheric scenes and emotional resonance. The play smoothly flows from one scene to the next, with seamless transitions supported by clever lighting and staging changes worked into the action.
The central theatrical conceit of giving Benjamin’s voices physical manifestations as a pair of physically and mentally abusive bullies of both genders worked well, demonstrating through very physical theatre the constant literal torture that schizophrenics endure. Tom Denny and Megan Artherton skillfully brought these inner demons vividly to life, bringing real menace and maliciousness to the roles. By contrast, Laura Williamson’s soft, quietly controlled performance of Benjamin’s caring psychiatrist brought much needed light to Tom and Megan’s shade.
But any review of Schiz would not be complete without mentioning its star Alexander Banks. As well as a sublime and physically draining performance as the tortured Benjamin, he also directed the play (with the excellent assistance of Laura Williamson), and wrote it based on his own ideas and research. He is simply overflowing with talent, and I have no doubt he will go far. Just watch this space.
Criticisms of the play are incredibly minor, and are barely worth mentioning: Occasionally, the voices’ theatricality was a tad unsubtle, bordering on hackneyed, but this lack of innovation was more than made up for by the very strong use of such pre-existing techniques. The acting from the cast was very strong throughout – there was absolutely no weak link – however (and this might be a tad unfair), Banks’ own incredible all-encompassing central performance occasionally outshone the others by some distance. And the ending, although accurate to many sufferers of schizophrenia, was either predictable or tragically inevitable, depending on your point of view.
But none of these very slight quibbles remotely affect the enjoyment of what is one of the most engaging, emotional, dramatic and passionately performed pieces of theatre I have seen in a very long time. It has reinvigorated my interest in the theatrical arts, and I wish it all the success in the world when it is performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next month.