The devil withinWhen we think of a mental institution, we immediately imagine a chaotic hospital where things are terribly awry—patients shrieking, throwing objects around, harming themselves and others, and some even strapped down by strait-jackets.
When we think of a mental institution, we immediately imagine a chaotic hospital where things are terribly awry—patients shrieking, throwing objects around, harming themselves and others, and some even strapped down by strait-jackets. But how realistic a vision is that? It is no secret that psychiatric, even psychological problems are seldom talked about in Nepal; and even when they are, the society is quick to stigmatise the afflicted as “crazy,” making it near to impossible for them to re-assimilate back into the society. It then is disruptive, even ground-breaking, that Bed Number 99, a play currently being staged at Theatre Mall in the Capital, tackles this question so boldly—laying bare the falsities of the image of mental hospitals, and its patients, portrayed by films and soap operas.
Directed by Ghanashyam Shrestha, Bed Number 99—which is an adaptation of a story, Sipahi ki Swasni, by Mahesh Bikram Shah—tells the story of a man suffering from a psychological ailment: His problem is that he suspects his wife is cheating on him, that the wife’s pregnancy is the result of her affair with another man. However, early on the play he confesses that he has slept with other women. The audience, then, has no option but to deduce that his problem is purely self-created.
After all, how can a man who has confessed of infidelity become driven to madness by the suspicion of the infidelity of his spouse? Or does it tug at the double standards that we hold while judging ourselves and others?
At its core, despite its many hyperboles, Bed Number 99 is about all of us—our fears and obsessions. It’s the obsession that emerges out of the universal human desire to belong, to love and to be loved. When our protagonist feels his love is not being reciprocated, he descends into the infernal darkness of self-loathing and unbearable suspicion. But after all, who isn’t beset with a tinge of jealousy, envy or the suspicion that we after all aren’t the centre of the universe? But, for our character, it is a burden too great to bear.
In bringing that burden to stage, and leading the audience into the psyche of the patient (and perhaps ourselves), the producers have choreographed a series of dream sequences in which the characters, emerging out of the character’s dreams, all in black, haunt the protagonist. Ubiquitous, they creep from under his bed, some even climb on to his bed and grab him by the neck. This particular sequence plays a crucial role in manifesting his anxieties through tangible action, which just solemn monologues perhaps wouldn’t have been able to.
Once we are let inside the psyche of the character, the play goes forth to unearth the mystery behind the mental duress the character succumbs to, and how the character gets out of the malady, thanks to the good doctor. Coming towards the end of the play as a moment of epiphany which, if stretched, could also be viewed as a satire to the impersonal and “business-like” health care industry, where a patient is just another number for a doctor (Bed number 98 in this case). Were all doctors so invested in their craft as our good doctor on stage, what indeed would be the state of our health-care system, particularly that geared toward care for psychiatric ailments.
Bed Number 99 does this with a minimalistic set—the interior of a hospital room—and lightings that closely follow the mood being acted out, and the use of dream sequences as a metaphor for the character’s inner dilemmas—which add to the immersion into the character’s psyche and subtracts from the distractions from the message, and brings on to the stage characters and issues that have been seldom before explored in Nepali theatre or movies.
All in all, with all its merits, Bed Number 99 extrapolates, among other things, how the mental ailments of our lead character, even if magnified for stage, exists in some degree in all of us. And just as our character discerns at the end, the play persuades that the solution to one’s mental angst exists not outside of us but within us, at the very core of our autonomous being.