Moment(o)s of Leaving is an immersive, site-specific play staged in the East One ward of Whitchurch’s psychiatric hospital before its closure next month.
The evening began with a matron leading the way through the dim-lit grounds to an eerie conservatory. Four figures stood frozen behind the glass, but before we could meet them, the matron (acted by Sioned Jones) brusquely ticked us off a list demanding answers as to whether we were epileptic, suicidal, dangerous or “other”. Nervous laughter echoed as we waited for the next move.
We were directed into a larger room where three of the figures hid under covers on hospital beds. After we had gathered, Matron ushered in the remaining patient who hung limply as she was coaxed into the fourth bed. The slow start suddenly accelerated when the patients were woken, and the play’s intensity hit home as the cast played out an almost dancing depiction of the patients’ potentially suicidal nature. Individuals’ repeated sequences, such as falling and being caught by another, emphasised the relentlessness that can haunt mental health problems.
The deliberate smallness of both the cast and audience creates an intimacy that generates a powerful atmosphere as the play moves from room to room. Artistic Director Elaine Paton also performed as the patient who had been brought in by Matron, yet the drama was also something of a reality for this member of the cast. Having spent time as a psychiatric inpatient herself, Paton later invited us to take a look at her diaries and letters from this period of her life.
This interactive aspect of the play was particularly powerful. The opening scene had segued into the group, where some of us were taken for “observation” and others were offered a cup of tea. Observation involved walking around the patients’ cubicles holding their meagre possessions, which ranged from a floor littered with paper planes to a wall covered in kids’ crayon drawings.
From this point we were free to roam the ward; audio recordings of conversations were available to give more context to the hospital’s history and closure, or we could watch carefully choreographed solo set-pieces of how patients might have behaved during their incarceration.
This free section lasted 20 minutes, before following into a series of dramatisations of the hospital’s characters. The most hard-hitting of these was a portrayal of a young woman, acted by Rosalind Hâf Jones, pacing the corridor as if on a catwalk while putting on more than 10 coats simultaneously. Her frantic muttering and rushed swerves signalled a mind riddled with anxiety.
The show closed with a slightly prolonged episode in which Matron took us through the biography of Sister Florence Raines, who was instrumental in running the hospital during its era as a military hospital during the two World Wars. In comparison with the compelling characterisation of the hospital earlier in the play, where Sioned Jones brilliantly took on the role of the hospital itself – complete with clever merging of the patients’ ill-health and the hospital’s poor condition – the scene detailing Sister Florence Raines’ biography seemed a little dry.
It would be impossible to record all the elements of this rich and multi-faceted play. The two and a half hours might have been compressed into a shorter and even more compelling play, but regardless this is an accomplished production which certainly does justice to the hospital’s remarkable 108-year history.