Anger management

Kay Adshead (writer), Lisa Goldman (director) Animal Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street, London W1V 6NE, until September 27; national tour until November 15. Box office: 020 7478 0100

Kay Adshead is a wonderfully poetic writer and someone not afraid to take on the big issues of the day. Her last play, The bogus woman - also directed by Lisa Goldman - was a one-woman odyssey, which in the course of its encounters, horrors and successive brick walls devastatingly succeeded in exposing the bureaucratic inhumanity of Britain’s asylum system. With Animal she paints a possible near future. Of course, the intent is to warn, not predict.

Once again Adshead’s writing is well served by Goldman’s direction. The set frames the intimate and simultaneously facilitates a refracted description of the bigger picture. Britain is gripped by mass protests - fascinatingly the piece was written before (and therefore foreshadows) the great upsurge against the war in Iraq. The mood is almost insurrectionary. Desperate, the government cracks down. Yet it seems that popular opposition is not cowed. Questions like when, who and why are largely left to our imagination. Adshead cleverly feeds us with tantalising glimpses and fleeting remarks. No more.

Meanwhile in a heavily guarded London clinic overlooking a spacious park - the scene of recent demonstrations and a murderous mounted police charge - we meet the three characters around whom Adshead weaves her tale.

Pongo (Richard Owens) is one of the socially excluded. Mentally scarred, dislocated, isolated, seething, he has though managed to survive on the streets for many years. Till, that is, an inconsequential incident sends him tumbling over the edge and into an uncontrollable rage. The old man is hospitalised in the interest of public safety and for his own good. However, this is no run-of-the-mill mental hospital.

Charming but driven, Dr Lee (Fiona Bell) is not simply interested in treating her patients. She heads a scientific drugs trial intended to show that the pharmaceutical industry can ‘cure’ psychotic individuals like Pongo. And what works for one can work for many. Civil unrest and international warfare can be banished. Harmless chemical sprays thereby supersede police batons and army tanks. Government contracts and huge profits are guaranteed, yes. But also everlasting peace. Man, the animal, at last becomes man, the angel.

Understandably, Dr Lee presses ahead enthusiastically. Things look promising, especially when under the warm but no-nonsense care of Elmo (Mark Monero), a psychiatric nurse, Pongo begins to emerge from his inner hell and shafts of natural intelligence and wit dart through.

Adshead puts her characters on an emotional rollercoaster. Fractured interactions, moments of empathy, ghostly memories, blank incomprehension, antiseptic calculation, disempowering fear and above all raw anger take them from the dark and into the light and vice versa.

Pongo yearns for friendship. He develops a longing for Dr Lee, who possesses neither the time nor the inclination to engage. For reasons that do not overconcern the doctor Pongo kills a swan. Dr Lee responds with what she knows best - a more intensive drugs regime. It fails. Pongo retreats into catatonic non-communication. Dr Lee too shows that she is shaped by history and vulnerabilities. She is no automaton. As for Elmo, he sidelines as a sexist comic. The particular butt of his jokes are the female anti-government protesters. However, behind contempt lies fascination and that finally shifts into active identification.

Anger lies at the heart of Adshead’s play. Anger can be utterly irrational, frightening and destructive. Yet without anger there can be no resistance and therefore no human, as opposed to technical, progress. Anger is both positive and negative. It can destroy humanity or liberate humanity. If I have a complaint, it is in the failure of Richard Owens to fully bring this out with his Pongo character. He plays him far too safe. More eccentric uncle than tortured soul. We pity, not fear him.

Adshead’s implicit hostility towards governments and the scientific caste employed by them and big business might disturb or even repel conservative opinion. But her basic premise is well founded. Banking on scientific solutions to solve social ‘problems’ typifies an age when capitalism is in decline. Anti-social behaviour, women’s liberation, homosexuality, alienation, revolution itself - all have been viewed in this way. Countless pseudo-solutions have been discovered: eg, the so-called criminal gene.

Governments have certainly pursued ways to eliminate civil discontent using mind-altering drugs. The 1992 weapons treaty outlaws research into chemical weapons that can “cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm” to a foreign enemy. There is, however, no prohibition against using such weapons against one’s own population - for riot control or crowd dispersal, for example. Calmatives currently under consideration are derived from Prozac and Zoloft, others from valium. Ketamine (ecstasy) and rohypnol (date rape drug) are also being used.

Large numbers of guinea pigs have been recruited in the ‘third world’ and from amongst students, soldiers, prisoners and the poor in countries like Britain and the United States. So Pongo and Dr Lee are real types. And on February 15 two million Elmos took to the streets of London and occupied Hyde Park. Here, with such people, lie our hopes and solutions.