Medicine @ Traverse Theatre

Domhnall Gleeson shines in Enda Walsh's Brechtian black comedy Medicine, part of Edinburgh International Festival's 2021 programme

Review by Kirsty Mcgrory | 19 Aug 2021
  • Medicine @ Traverse Theatre

Enda Walsh’s new play Medicine is both an accomplished absurdist comedy and a searing indictment of the manner in which people suffering from mental illness are ignored, marginalised and mistreated. Produced by Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, Medicine stars Domhnall Gleeson as protagonist John Kane, a patient who is undergoing some form of drama therapy in a residential mental health facility. Clad in pyjamas and brown leather shoes, John is eager to participate in the therapy session, which is facilitated by an actor, a sound engineer and a drummer, and supposedly aims to allow him to fully explain his formative traumatic experiences through dramatic interpretation.  

To John’s growing frustration, the egos and personal anxieties of those tasked with helping him impede his ability to make himself properly heard. This is played out with comedic aplomb by Clare Barrett as vain actor Mary, and Aoife Duffin as her nervy sound engineer namesake – the ubiquity of the name Mary and references to Mary Magdalene throughout the productionadd an extra layer of nuance to the existential bleakness of John’s loneliness and desperation. Society’s disregard for him is further underlined by Jamie Vartan’s set design, as the hospital room is strewn with the remnants of a staff party from the night before that no-one has bothered to clean up. A ‘congratulations’ banner hangs limply at the front of the stage with painful irony. 

Live drumming by Sean Carpio adds texture and atmosphere to sound designer Helen Atkinson’s unsettling dystopian soundscape, alongside elements such as the costuming and physical comedy that prevent Medicine from becoming a litany of misery. The play is further imbued with real heart by Gleeson’s endearing and heart-rending performance, as John progresses from affable fragility to foaming fury, before a final, quiet redemption of sorts. 

Brechtian elements serve as indicators as to Enda Walsh’s aim to make the audience think critically about present day mental health provision and social stigma. Cutting through the absurdism and the comedy is a clear message – everyone has a right to be heard, to be seen, and to have a hand to hold.

Medicine, Traverse Theatre, until 29 Aug, returns only – part of the 2021 Edinburgh International Festival