Right off the bat, Le Cenci is an assault on the senses. Walking over white pieces of paper with disturbing images sketched on them, the same images stuck up on walls and the floors all over the stage to create a padded room effect and right through to the loud sound of television static that jolts you to attention at the beginning of the show.
Martin Van Heerden (patient) stands stark naked, his body painted all white while humming a hymn like medieval song that is prominent throughout the play. “When I was young there was a dream I dreamed, every day and every night. I was naked in a large room and a wild animal, the kind that appears in dreams…” he begins while the other actors (Cassius Davids, Charlie Bouguenon and Macmillan Mabaleka) surround him shining torch lights along the crevices of his body.
All the while Fiona Ramsay (plays Beatrice Le Cenci and another mental patient) stands towards the far end of the stage dressed in an early period French dress with a lamp hanging limply from her hand. The effect is staggeringly unnerving and leaves one trying to figure out what follows only to fail each time. Static blares deafeningly from the speakers again and the walls are covered in disturbing images depicting an array of things.
The pace does not build up more than it maintains a linear sombre sensibility where the only moments of respite feel like punches to the gut. Interposed with monologues narrating the story of Beatrice Le Cenci, Antonin Artuad, descriptions of the progression of the beuponic plague and the unnerving telling of the experience of sexual molestation; all of it is shocking to behold.
I found myself thinking about how that must be how it feels to be in the mouth of madness. You aren’t left to the safety of observation windows looking into madness, you are sucked into it. What the play seeks to do is not explain away what it is to be insane, but instead holds your hand and guides you through the motions and many layers therein. A few times I saw some of the other attendees jumping in their seats because of the effect of all the elements thrown together.
On the surface, it may seem like something too abstract for the average mind to conceive but beyond all the aesthetics, Le Censi achieves what it sets out to do. It drives you mad and unsettles you all at once, inadvertently leaving you with first-hand experience of what people with mental illness actually go through daily.
This is a powerful piece with arresting performances by the cast. The sounds and visuals don’t detract from the physical performances and more than aids them in the end. It runs at #NAF2016 until tomorrow, 06/07/2016 at 16h00. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest that you do. Fair warning, prepare to be driven insane. Definitely one of my picks for best of fest 2016!