Patient No. 1
York Theatre Royal Studio
Donald Freed's punchy political play begins from the premise that a medical paper suggested that seven 20th century US presidents have suffered from mental illness when in office. Patient No.1 is set in the future, two years hence, when George Bush is out of office and has been carefully 'retired' to a special psychiatric unit, deep in the Everglades in Florida. His doctor (Jon Farris) has been hurriedly returned from holiday to care for a heavily medicated new arrival - referred to simply as 'Patient Number 1'.
We find a man (Robert Pickavance) in a pitiful state - unable to articulate the one word that he's desperately trying to say. Continually chaperoned by his security agent (Jonathan Race) he roars about outside on a dirt bike, wanders about lost in the rain storms and, when he faces his doctor, is an empty shell, hardly human, and lost for words. It is those who created the ex-President this way that are responsible, says Freed, and he confronts the audience with a broken human being. Pickavance's performance of a man incapacitated and trying desperately to enact his previous programming, is brutal - the audience become both complicit in his state from the intimate setting in the studio, whilst desperately holding on to their liberalist sensibilities. Before the play begins, we hate him, and when we leave, we pity him; he is a lost soul with too much power and completely out of his depth in wielding it, bringing America to a perilous state.
Farris' doctor becomes increasingly desperate, trying to elicit a response from his shaking patient, by trying a word association game, pelting him with words such as 'shock and awe', 'terror', 'Guantánamo', 'Abu Ghraib' and 'Iraq'. It is only when the doctor references the ex-President's time at Yale as a part of the 'Skull and Bones' society, that he gets a heightened reaction. It is interesting that Freed chooses this particular period in Bush's life to highlight, in some ways likening the inhuman initiation ceremony to a form of torture, where the young students are made to undergo a horrific ritual which only serves to further create them as shocked, terrified and unfeeling individuals. Unfortunately this is where the play looses those of us who are not widely versed in George Bush's biography. Whilst fascinating, it is undoubtedly in America where much of the culture references will be more relevant.
However, in York Theatre Royal Studio, it is the performers that shine through, with absolutely agonizing performances by every actor. Pickavance is transporting as the broken patient, Farris as his frantic doctor and Race as the infallible security officer. Race's character provides much of the humour, always at his president's side, loyal to the last, and only communicating with his sparse lines, 'Copy', 'Repeat?' and 'Negative!'. Interestingly his robotic language echoes this idea that Bush is merely a product of his conditioning, with little sense of self left.
The final scene begins a climactic 'pyscho-drama' whereby the doctor is literally invoking a devil from the cowboy-outfitted ex-President, trying to return himself to the human being he once was. Freed suggests that Bush has little responsibility for his actions, and that in fact it is us, the audience, that is responsible for electing such a puppet but also in doing nothing to stop him. This is particularly poignant and well timed by director Damien Cruden, to be showing this play at the height of current coverage of the American elections - what will the electorate decide? How will the audience react? If politics in America is all about the show, then this is one show that will make you think again.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys