Medicine review – Domhnall Gleeson despairs in absurdist institutional limbo

Ever since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we’ve liked to imagine the staff who run an institution might be crazier than those in their care. That’s certainly the case in Enda Walsh’s premiere, which kicks off the theatre programme of the Edinburgh international festival in a collaboration with Landmark and the Galway international arts festival. Flamboyant, funny and surreal – right down to a Dalí-esque lobster costume – Medicine is set in a hospital that keeps its patients in a self-perpetuating limbo in which they are never satisfactorily diagnosed and so never cured.

The poor protagonist in this position is John Kane, whose annual session of drama therapy is his big chance to make sense of his memories of parental neglect and childhood bullying. He is played superbly by Domhnall Gleeson, who is at once passively accepting of his confinement and on the brink of tears at the inexpressible horror of it all. Resigned to a life in cotton pyjamas, he cannot comprehend how such an important day for him might be just another day’s work for the therapists.

And what therapists! In works such as The Walworth FarceBallyturk, Walsh has revelled in the heightened theatricality of plays within plays. In the case of Medicine, performed on a set by Jamie Vartan that looks like a gym hall in the aftermath of a staff party, he fields two musical-theatre actors called Mary whose job is to dramatise Kane’s life story as if it were a West End show. Rather than using theatre techniques as a form of counselling, these two want a full-scale production.

At first, the joke is about the actorly indulgence of Clare Barrett’s Mary, grandly lauding it over a pliable Aoife Duffin as the other Mary, in a funny chalk-and-cheese pairing. But as the play goes on, absurdist comedy gives way to dark despair. The first Mary’s contemptuous editing of Kane’s story, as if he were a second-rate playwright and not a human being, comes to stand for an institutional indifference to his plight.

The free jazz drumming performed live by Sean Carpio intensifies from the decorative to the apocalyptic as Gleeson is left stranded, more lost and bewildered than ever.

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