Manual Oracle conceived, written and directed by Phoebe von Held is a result of her ‘artist in residence’ research period at King’s College London and constitutes a brave, affective and imaginative project centred on mental health disorders. It uses as its anchor and inspiration the seventeenth-century Machiavellian handbook of survival strategies for the court, authored by a Spanish Jesuit monk, which reveals anxiety about court politics with a particular focus on constant dangers of being spied on and persecuted.
Von Held makes a huge leap by equating the situation of Renaissance anxious courtiers with the mental health conditions of modern society introduced in her devised play by a series of vignettes with actors performing paranoia and psychosis in a variety of contemporary social and political contexts. While all manner of dissembling such as rhetorical arts of persuasion were key to everyday life of early modern courtiers, they were not only a source of their anxiety (because being misunderstood could result in persecution) but they were also a source of pride and delight (because highly admired if successful). The construction of identities and hiding behind masks was integral to early modern era within the world of Renaissance politics and arts and thus cannot be directly united with our contemporary understanding of mental health problems.
Despite a slightly contentious link between early modern condition of life and our contemporary world made by von Held, herManual Oracle is a thoughtful and realistic exploration of paranoia and psychosis, an effect of collaborative work with the Institute of Psychiatry. In the talk after the performance chaired by Anxiety Festival’s curator Barbara Rodrigues Muñoz, one of the speakers, Dr. Emmanuelle Peters praised the show’s ability to provide a truthful portrayal of the key symptoms of psychosis such as hearing voices, as well as the nuanced depiction of the relationship between mental patients and their therapists.
Undoubtedly mental illness is depicted so well also thanks to the efforts of ensemble cast and their physical acting skills in particular. All actors also use with great success improvisation in Manual Oracle’s episodic scenes which require swift changes of costume and on stage props.
However, Manual Oracle, most of all, works best as a fine piece of performance art, both visually and aurally, thanks to accomplished animations by Maria Paz-Garcia and Josephine Farr and brilliant sound design by Jamie Hamilton. Artistic merits of the production do not end with animation and sound, indeed it is worth mentioning beautiful masks designed by Moi Tran, which were sadly underused on stage. They feature in the best segment of the play in which two border control officers wearing huge cats masks interrogate two travellers in the most Kafkaesque moment in the performance where not only paranoia but also clever rhetorical games reign.
Another strength of von Held’s play is its sensitive exploration of modern politics including such burning issues as xenophobia aimed at immigration, the greed of corporations and pressures of pursuing a career and success. Lastly it is worth visiting the Yard theatre itself to experience von Held’s play in a new inspiring theatre venue which continues to host such inventive shows asManual Oracle.