“Did You Used to be R. D. Laing?” at the Mumford Theatre, March 2011

The ticket stub confirms that I went to see Mike Maran’s Did You Used to be R. D. Laing? at 6pm on Sunday the 27th March 2011 at the Mumford theatre in Cambridge. I went with my parents. I was supposed to sit in seat 8E.1 The stage set was visible as we entered.2 Stage left: a baby-grand piano and stool, keyboard facing the auditorium, lid down, flap open. Stage right: a right-angled stage block made out like the bar in a pub. Centre: a high backed, well-worn leather swivel chair on wheels with an ambience of psychiatry about it. Behind all this a large painted backdrop depicting a slightly cubist looking black angel above a city skyline3. Here is a drawing of how it looked from 8E:


There were somewhere between 60 and 80 people in attendance – enough to make the auditorium feel populated. I noticed most were middle aged or above – so old enough to have heard about R. D. Laing first-hand. An usher closed the entrance doors and pulled a curtain across. The hubbub started to die down. A man entered from stage left, walked around the piano stool and sat down with his back to the audience. He began to play. This man was David Milligan, who arranged the music for the show.4 A second man entered, also from stage left, and strode across the stage. He was tall, bald, wearing glasses with colourful plastic frames and sporting a red suit and a blousy tie. This was Mike Maran, Did You Used to be R. D. Laing?’s writer and director. He made his way directly to the bar and poured himself a whisky, drank it and poured himself another. Then he started talking about Ronald David Laing.5

I’m pretty sure that from this point onwards I’m not going to be able to do justice to the performance in words. The closest I could get would probably be to give you the words of the script and let you imagine the way they were spoken.6 But I haven’t got the script.7 There are several aspects of the performance I should mention, however. One of these is the way the narration and the music played off each other. There were only a few points during the performance when the piano was not being played. David Milligan’s music8 was very varied in terms of style, tempo, melody vs rhythm, mood and so on. This set up a range of dynamics between the piano and Mike Maran’s voice. At times the piano provided a subtle mood accompaniment to the narration, like listening to a guy tell his life story at the bar of a jazz club. Quite often the piano and the narration were at odds, (laconic vs insistent, loose-tongued vs precise etc.), which for me provided a restlessness and tension that energised the show. Sometimes Maran had to shout to be heard over fortissimo piano work. (My Dad pointed out later that this had been cleverly employed in the first half of the performance when Maran was driving hardest at some kind of restitution for “Ronnie” D. Laing. Later on the tone of the piece mellowed towards Maran’s concluding rendition of the song What Kind of a Fool am I?9)

During the performance I was totally engaged by the unfolding life-story of R. D. Laing and it’s only in retrospect that I can start to identify the storytelling devices Maran was employing. The script combined elements of conventional biography (the show opened with a description of the circumstances of Laing’s birth in Glasgow in 1927 and his life as a child), historical context (episodes from the history of psychiatric treatment in the UK) and Laing-related apocrypha and anecdote (some of which I remember being very funny and should probably not attempt to do justice to here10). Maran’s narration11 moved freely between different registers. It included elements of impersonation (the whisky, gestures of drunkenness, a Glaswegian accent); then at times Maran was an old friend of Ronnie’s reminiscing, gesturing to the space where Ronnie would have been; at other points Maran’s voice was closer to that of an objective biographer, and then occasionally it was clear we were watching Mike Maran expressing his feelings about Laing’s life.

I’ve alluded above to the possibility that the show expressed a desire for some kind of restitution for Laing. It was certainly founded in a deep and thoughtful sympathy for his life and work. But it was a complex, multi-voiced, warts-and-all portrait. I came away appreciating that Laing’s unique point of view was inextricably bound up with his position on the margins of mainstream psychiatry. The way Maran told the story, Laing’s sense of companionship12 with his patients set him in opposition to medical authority from the outset of his career. But it was also clear that Laing never really managed to look after himself or his interests.

Stripped of all other context Did You Used to be R. D. Laing? can be seen as the natural result of Mike Maran being prepared to stand up and talk about Laing for an hour and a half. In this respect might be seen to fit within the tradition of Spoken Word. I also think about how the piece relates to the idea of Oral Tradition – the way cultural materials and traditions are passed down from one generation to another in words (and perhaps I was well placed to appreciate the inter-generational significance of the show). I feel the Mumford Theatre provided a kind of sanctuary for both these things on Sunday the 27th March. I trust Mike Maran as a tribal elder and I think I agree with the Scotsman’s review (quoted in the programme), which describes the show as “an oasis of communication in a desert of glitz and spin”.

1 Mum misheard the usher and we sat in row B first – but she realised her mistake and we moved back to E before the rightful occupants arrived.

2 I counted 5 stage lights. Warm yellows and oranges and perhaps a pink. The lighting on-stage may have been raised slightly at the beginning and a fade to black signified the end of the performance; otherwise it was constant throughout. I don’t remember whether the auditorium was lit during the performance but I have the feeling we weren’t in the pitch black and that Mike Maran could see us – though perhaps not as well as we could see him. I have an idea that only the front half (i.e. the half nearer the stage) of the auditorium was lit as we entered, which effectively halved the size of the theatre and helped the show ‘fill the space’ (the Mumford has a capacity of 266 seats). So in general one could say that the production used lighting to establish the right social conditions rather than for theatrical effect. That the audience were visible to each other and the performer during the performance feels particularly significant.

3 The free programme given to me by the usher identifies this as Glasgow, where R. D. Laing was born and spent some of his working life.

4 I didn’t take the opportunity to buy a CD recording of the score for £10 after the show so I can’t say what the music was – but more on the music shortly.

5 It may be helpful to insert a short biographical sketch here:

R. D. Laing (7 October 1927 – 23 August 1989), was a Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on mental illness. Throughout his career he was a controversial figure within psychiatry. “Laing’s views on the causes and treatment of serious mental dysfunction, greatly influenced by existential philosophy, ran counter to the psychiatric orthodoxy of the day by taking the expressed feelings of the individual patient or client as valid descriptions of lived experience rather than simply as symptoms of some separate or underlying disorder.” In a BBC radio interview in 1983, Laing diagnosed himself as suffering from clinical depression and alcoholism. “These admissions were to have serious consequences for Laing as they formed part of the case against him by the General Medical Council which led to him ceasing to practice medicine.” (Quotes from the Wikipedia entry on Laing).

6 There are several things I could say to enlarge on this. I hesitate slightly – . The first has to do with any analysis ‘after the event’. I think this has to be handled carefully. One of the difficulties of academia may be that it perpetually finds itself coming up with the answer too late to be of practical use. The second, related, has to do with the way a script invites us to imagine the hypothetical performance for which it is a kind of blueprint in words. Whether or not one actually decides to produce it in any sense (which could be simply to read it out loud), I suggest that reading a script is a creative and imaginative exercise in a way that reading an analysis of a performance is unlikely to be.

7 The script is reproduced in a booklet included in with the CD recording of David Milligan’s score. Tantalisingly it’s available through Mike Maran’s website for £11. In the case of Did You Used to be R. D. Laing? it seems unlikely that the words of the script alone could convey the sense of the performance in which David Milligan’s piano was a key element (see main text), and so it makes sense that the script and a recording of the score are packaged together.

8 The programme lists Billy Strayhorn, Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Chick Corea amongst the source artists for David Milligan’s score.

9 What Kind of a Fool am I? was a hit single for Sammy Davis Jr in 1962 and was subsequently recorded by artists including Tony Bennett, Shirley Bassey and James Brown.

10 After taking off his jacket at the beginning of a public lecture on Schizophrenia, Laing reportedly looked straight at a middle-aged woman in the front row of the audience and said, in droll Glaswegian: “Sorry dear – it’s not a striptease.”

11 Etymological Side Project:

I have had difficulty finding the right word to describe Maran’s performance of the script. The OED defines ‘narration’ as:

  1. a) A thing narrated or recounted; a story, an account.

b) The action or an act of narrating or recounting something; the fact of being narrated. Formerly esp. in “to make narration”.

c) Film and Television. Spoken commentary on film or television; a voice-over.

a) and b) both fit the sense in which I’m using the word to describe Mike Maran’s delivery but c) doesn’t. Why is this? It seems significant that a film or television voice-over is disembodied – we do not see the person speaking on-screen. Instead we see a stream of images – the video track. The words of the voice-over can relate to the VT in different ways (explicatory, critical, ironical etc.). I think the important thing to note is that a voice-over doesn’t speak straight to us but rather mediates our relationship with the VT in some way. In this respect Mike Maran’s delivery couldn’t have been further from a voice-over. For one thing he was fully physically present as he spoke and his use of gesture and expression contributed greatly to the performance. Perhaps we can say that Maran’s delivery was the content of the piece (note the noun/verb ambiguity of definitions a) and b) in this relation). A discussion of the difference between the way language is employed in a TV of film voice-over and the way a storyteller like Mike Maran might use language points us in the direction of an investigation into the way modes of viewing cultivated by film and television might influence the way contemporary audiences relate to theatre (and maybe how film and TV viewing influences contemporary consciousness in general). This is a massive topic I cannot pursue here.

12 Maran points out in the programme notes that “…a companion is someone with whom you share bread.”


About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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