Happiness Repeats Itself
By Sean Tuan John
7th and 8th October 2013
Wales Millennium Centre, Weston Studio
Happiness Repeats Itself is a textual and physical exploration of the infamous lobotomy procedures carried out in America by the notorious Dr Walter Freeman during the 1950s.
Dr Freeman was the first person to carry out a lobotomy in America and eventually developed the transorbital lobotomy technique in which the frontal lobes of the brain were accessed through the eye sockets, the infamous ‘ice-pick technique’. The company performed this grisly procedure in gruesome detail onstage, practising on grapefruit just as Dr Freeman did in the 50s.
Lobotomies were carried out as a ‘cure’ for many different conditions including violent or compulsive behaviour, schizophrenia, depression, strong emotions and even homosexuality. The idea was to disconnect the frontal lobes of the brain whilst leaving the motor functions and intelligence unharmed. Unfortunately the frontal lobes are also responsible for decision making, personality, creativity and other higher brain functions which meant many patients were left dull and lifeless with no personality and unable to look after themselves.
Despite constantly battling with the American accent and dodgy wigs the energetic cast gave powerful and compelling performances. A number of real life case studies were used as inspiration for the characters of Dr Freeman’s patients, each of which led a tragic life before and after their procedure. Every performer committed fully to their role and it’s a wonder they didn’t really collapse at the end after throwing their bodies around the stage
The piece was interestingly staged using several desks spread around the space, lit by desk lamps whilst the performers spoke into microphones. Unfortunately the stage picture was sometimes a bit muddled and it was difficult to establish what part of the stage required attention. Too much was happening at once and background action was often better lit than the people talking. This may have been a clever technique to make the audience feel the disorientation of the patients but unfortunately it took away from what could have been some quite poignant and moving sections.
The action was also rather repetitive and it may have been beneficial to only explore a few of the case studies in greater detail as the separate introductions to each character became repetitive adding little to the progression of the piece. This also meant the conclusion was somewhat predictable. The choreographed sections were without a doubt the strongest element of the piece as they were completely engrossing and really conveyed the struggle of emotions and physical pains the patients went through, whist the cold and mechanical doctor oversaw all the action.
Perhaps Happiness Repeats Itself needs to be viewed several times to fully appreciate the intricacies and detail of the production as so much went on in the short time. Overall was an intelligent and visceral investigation into the horror of 1950s neurosurgery and the failings of the medical community, American society and sometimes even the family unit.
For more on creator and choreographer Sean Tuan John click here.