A Generous Lover is a brilliant play about a queer person who navigates the public mental healthcare system to support someone they love with bipolar disorder. The production is part of HOME’s Orbit Festival 2019. This year’s theme is “Conquer the Divide.”
The play is written and performed by HOME associate artist La JohnJoseph, who has based this brutally honest, down-to-earth drama on a true story. Though they have kept their own name, they have named their significant other after the classic Greek hero Orpheus, who famously travelled to the underworld to save his beloved.
LaJohnJoseph is the solo performer of the show, and delivers a powerful monologue narrating their negative experience with the public mental health institution. Orpheus, their lover, is struggling with manic episodes that led to him being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. JJ describes their attempts to support him, even though he abuses them in return. It is easy to assume that the protagonist is the “Generous Lover”, but, in reality, the play’s title is a name they give to mania; to describe Orpheus’s relationship with his mental illness.
It quickly becomes clear that JJ views themselves, not their boyfriend, as Orpheus from the Greek myth, and associates the medical institution to the underworld. Key focuses of the play are the bad conditions of the hospital, which JJ compares to Dante’s descriptions of hell, and their own internal distrust of the mental health institution, commenting on how they can be “locked up” simply because of their transsexual identity.
Even though they are critical of the public institution, they avoid talking about the medical complexities – doctors are only mentioned briefly. They focus instead on the basic needs of the patients that are not being met, such as uncomfortable beds, revolting food, and ugly surroundings, such as generic inspirational posters and a mural that is described as “a cloud pissing rainbow on another cloud”.
The play also plainly states how private mental health treatment is far superior to public mental health treatment. The monologue is delivered in a colloquial tone, so that the message is easily accessible to everyone.
LaJohnJoseph skilfully plays a diverse cast of characters. They channel Orpheus’ exaggerated manic episodes, represent the other patients at the hospital, each with their distinct features, and they also play the role of an omniscient narrator from the epic drama tradition. They effortlessly transition between characters by switching their tone, pitch and accents, successfully sounding like a different person every time.
The stage is minimalistic, containing only three white items: classic column in the Greco-Roman style, a hospital screen divider that reveals a vibrant heart with outstretched arms when turned, and a lawn chair. Three vastly different items that represent different aspects of the play.
LaJohnJoseph utilises a few props in their performance and are supported by a team backstage controlling the sound and lighting. The plain setting of the stage underpins the powerful message of the play, giving the audience no possible means of distraction.
I strongly recommend this important production. It talks candidly about mental health treatment in the UK from a unique perspective.