How to treat a religiously-orientated mental illness? This is a problem faced today by psychiatrists treating patients who believe they are possessed by spirits. Is there a limit to what Western medicine can heal, when faced with a dark night of the soul? With insights from psychiatry and anthropology, this show plunges soul-first into the human experience of spirit possession.
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Tom Bailey: I first came across St. Anthony in a book by the French writer, Gustave Flaubert. The origin of The Temptation of St. Anthony goes back to 4th century AD in Egypt. There is an historical record of a young man who went into the Red Sea Desert for his whole life in search of divine presence. He was repeatedly visited by demons. Ultimately, the story led me to become interested in the encounter between humans and demons and spirits.
I wanted to get close to the roots of the story, so I went to Egypt last year. I came across a rich confluence of cultures – Arabic, Coptic, Pharonic, Bedouin and Nubian. I wanted to make a project that maintained a flavour of this richness, and yet really mattered to audiences in multicultural, multi-faith Britain. What does the encounter between humans and spirits mean for us now?
Why bring your work to Edinburgh?
It’s a good place to present your work in front of a diverse audience and promoters. And it’s a great opportunity being shown at Summerhall, it felt like the right decision showcasing the work at the Fringe first and then taking the next steps.
What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
I hope there will be lots to see and feel and also to hear. My practice is ensemble-based. So I am working with performers from New Zealand, Japan, Sweden, Egypt and UK. The show will involve choral song from Egypt and elsewhere, and also movement. Ultimately, we are trying to offer audiences an interesting and moving insight into possession experience.
The cast implement their own cultural background and conception of the themes, and also in music and text. We are doing lots of movement work and are creating an experience that aims to explore, with audiences, a fascinating territory where spirituality meets psychiatry.
The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
For me dramaturgy is inseparable from my work as the director. Everything I do before and during the process is geared towards unlocking meaning through composition and co-creation. I don’t work with a dramaturg in the room, but like (in the case of this production) to discuss the dramaturgy with the cast.
Yes. I’m very driven by the work of a Polish director called Jerzy Grotowski, and the tradition of work that he has inspired. I like English writers Howard Barker and Tim Crouch. Artist Richard Long is also a big inspiration.
Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
I start normally by myself with the idea and then continue with lots of research. Each show is different and I don’t have a set process. For this show, it’s a devising process. I have a kind of ‘crib’ vision for the show before making it with the performers. There are set tasks that the actors need to fulfill within this process.
What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The theatre can’t happen without them. Yet they are absent in the making of the work. The absent recipient of an intended gift, let’s say. We are putting structured sharings with audiences across our process. I am deliberately making something very open. It may sound odd but I’m influenced, at least for this show, by mysticism writing. The experience of the show touches on this. I don’t want to communicate information. Just an experience.
Summerhall (Venue 26), Demonstration Room
13th–30th August 2015 (except 24th August)
21.15 (60 min)
Please also be aware of a panel talk we are facilitating on Monday, 17th August 2015, 3.30pm at Summerhall, which explores, with insights from Psychiatry, the Medical Humanities and members of the creative team, themes raised by the show, and wider issues around the role of spiritual-based healing in modern medicine.
This international ensemble is comprised of performers from Egypt, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand and UK.
The Mechanical Animal Corporation is a Bristol-based company, led by director Tom Bailey (Nightwalk, Bristol Mayfest/National Trust; Death & The Ploughman, Tobacco Factory Theatres). Egypt-based research for St. Anthony was conducted in residence with El Warsha theatre company, Cairo, supported by The British Council Egypt and Arts Council England.