When a cat starts to talk back

by
02 November 2006

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Christopher Landau sees a play about a Swedish pastor who is convinced by the fantasies of the patient she visits

WHEN God becomes a ginger cat, it's very difficult to stay in the Church. So concludes the pastor in Per Olov Enquist's play The Hour of the Lynx, which questions the ability of a mentally ill man to encounter the divine.

The psychiatric patient at the centre of events ("the boy", played compellingly by Seb Steiger) has killed two people, and is now being cared for in a hospital for the mentally ill. As part of his therapy, he is invited to take part in a research exercise being carried out by the "Future Studies" department of the local university. Its task: to discern what the human being of the future will be like. This involves asking patients whether they would prefer to have with them a cat or a colour television; 85 per cent opt for a cat, including the boy.

We hear that the boy loved his cat. He talked to it endlessly, and he believes that the cat talked back. He liked it, because it felt it unnecessary to ask about the murders. But the prospect of the cat's being neutered is too much for the boy, and it triggers a series of events that culminate in his killing the pet that has become his friend.

All this we hear in retrospect. The demoralised psychiatrist (Rebecca Adamson) who initiated the experiment has called on the local pastor (Ros Liddiard) to visit the boy. Medicine has exhausted its options, and so the Church is invited to make sense of a mentally disturbed murderer who has now killed a cat with whom he believed he could converse.

"But there are no handbooks with theological explanations for gratuitous violence," says the pastor. No matter: her quiet, open questioning and interested optimism draw the patient out of himself, while the sarcastic psychiatrist observes with increasing incredulity.

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Women who become pastors, Ros Liddiard's character says, "have to think things through very carefully"; and so it is that she becomes convinced by the boy's fantastical imaginings, in which the dead cat comes back to life and reveals that God is beautiful. "I've never thought of that," says the pastor. "I would like to understand."

And so it is that the pastor, who has appeared cogent throughout, and has drawn out of a mentally disturbed patient something approaching a coherent narrative, becomes seduced by what seems to be fantasy with a theological thread. The patient believes he sees God in the form of the ginger cat, and finds forgiveness; the pastor finds this credible, and the insight forces her to withdraw from the Church in which she has served for 18 years.

This is a powerful production from a company specialising in theatre on the theme of mental illness. All three actors sensitively explore the boundaries of sanity as their characters journey towards varied sorts of revelation. The play is made all the more compelling by the intimate setting of a pub theatre: when the pastor looks the audience in the eye, she does so no more than 20 feet from her most distant viewer. The result is a genuine sense of unease for those looking back.

Enquist's play presents a raw account of mental illness which challenges its viewer to determine where sanity ends and madness begins - where fantastical imagining becomes divine encounter. It demands to know who is best-placed to ask these questions. Its own answers are clear: an open compassion from the Church, flawed as it may be, is preferable to a medical establishment that stands accused of using the mentally ill as guinea pigs in research exercises.

The pastor may be flawed humanity personified, but she has done something profound. She has dared to believe the words of a man whom society condemns as insane.

At the Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1, until 22 October. Box office: 020 7837 7816.

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