Inspired by the story of William Freeman, the first defendant to plead insanity in a US court, Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts’ new play uses music, movement and drama to examine the societal link between institutionalised racism and mental health in both Britain and America.
Daniele Sanderson’s production presents six stories of injustice, spread out across history, from 19th-century New York to modern-day Britain. From Freeman, who was wrongfully imprisoned for horse-stealing in the early 1800s, to Sarah Reed, who committed suicide in Holloway Prison in 2016 after failing to receive treatment for acute psychiatric problems.
It’s harsh, harrowing stuff, but it’s realised on stage by six strong cast members with vitality and vibrancy. They use physical theatre (there’s a wonderful recreation of a horse), dance, singing, shadow puppetry and straightforward drama to tell their stories, flitting back and forth in time and space to paint a portrait of systemic prejudice. They weave a thread that stretches from the blatant discrimination of pre-civil war America to the snider social segregation that comes with stop and search.
It’s a bit melodramatic at times, a bit on the nose, perhaps even a bit manipulative, but there’s commendable invention and intent here. An admirable take on a tough topic.