MADHOUSE re:exit: “See it because it is bloody important”

Access All Areas Artistic Director Nick Llewellyn and his cast on the show that takes audiences into the history of learning-disabled people.

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The cavernous underbelly of Shoreditch Town Hall has been transformed into a labyrinthine institution for MADHOUSE re:exit. If this immediately conjures a horror story, you’re not far from the truth. But this horror doesn’t come dripping in blood. Instead it explores the historical treatment of learning-disabled people.

Director Nick Llewellyn and the show’s cast sit down to discuss MADHOUSE re:exit, its inspiration and its importance:

DJ Hassan stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
DJ Hassan stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

Nick Llewellyn: Personally, I think the show’s really important. Why? Because we need to review how we support people with learning disabilities to live independently in the community. A huge battle was fought and won in the ’70s and ’80s for people to come out of long-stay institutions and to give people proper choice and control with their lives. Over the last seven years it feels like those battles have been completely lost and were totally pointless.

Cian Binchy, performance poet: What we learned is shocking. People were being diagnosed as “feeble-minded” and “idiots”. In a way it’s still the same: people think that I haven’t developed any further than childhood. They think I’m a child trapped inside an adult’s body, that I’m asexual and have no desire to move on with my life.

DJ Hassan, dancer and choreographer: I was shocked. I thought, “Is that still happening?” And in a way it is! It’s very hard-hitting.

David Munns, illusionist: Things are a bit freer now, but there are still problems. Money is one of them. It all comes back to money.

NL: Yet it feels like there’s no government policy, no government strategy. As we know from Theresa May, there’s not even a common understanding of what learning disability is.

DH: Totally. They don’t understand who we actually are, that we are humans as well.

CB: [In researching the show] we learned that the institutions gave people a secondary handicap. It gave them mental health problems. It’s the same principle now, but we’re locked up in our own homes instead. It gives me a secondary handicap with my mental health, totally.

David Munns stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
David Munns stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

NL: Lots of people with learning disabilities have mental health issues, but that’s often caused – or at least aggravated by – the lack of opportunities and the lack of any independence. We now need to focus not on those the most in need but on the majority. Because the majority of people are receiving no support at all.

We can’t talk about the future unless we’ve discussed the past. And we’ve got a horrific past. We’ve isolated people with learning disabilities. We need to pause, take stock and be aware. Each MADHOUSE re:exit audience is a community and they’re involved in the lives of people with learning disabilities both inside and outside the show.

CB: I would like the audience to laugh and feel uplifted, but also feel moved. To think, “Oh my goodness, we’ve really got to do our bit to help, all of us.” Because I do believe that I am entitled to have the same opportunities as everyone else in life.

DM: I think that they should understand that we have a sense of humour. And that we understand a bit more about the world than people seem to think.

NL: That’s why the immersive style of the show is so important. The audience are going to be totally engrossed as they become “active citizens” on a tour of our corporate care facility, which is basically a metaphor for the UK. In each room they meet artists with learning disabilities who represent the UK’s changing response to people with learning disabilities throughout time. Each room has a stamp – both from the artist and the particular time period we’re visiting. When you’re spat back out at the end of the show, you can’t help but be affected.

In a way that’s more moving than watching a show in a traditional studio or theatre. You stare the artists straight in the eye. It’s a whole-body experience. It’s about authenticity, about getting up close and personal with people you might not see in normal life, out of ignorance or plain ignoring. And it’s about challenging misperceptions and creating a more rounded view of people with learning disabilities and their position and role in society.

We’ve been developing this for over two and a half years, so there have been plenty of challenges along the way! For me, it was how to incorporate five artists, five times periods and five different mediums of performance into one cohesive narrative. But we managed it! It’s been such a collaborative process.

So, the big question. Why should people come to see MADHOUSE re:exit?

Cian Binchy stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)
Cian Binchy stars in MADHOUSE re:exit (Image: Michael Wharley, courtesy of Chloe Nelkin PR)

DH: It will inspire you, move you, it will confuse you…

NL: I mean, every single human emotion that’s possible, you will experience it.

CB: People should come and see it because it is bloody, bloody important, too. There aren’t many shows or many things in the arts or TV that feature autism or learning difficulty. Often, it’s hidden away, and it’s treated as if it doesn’t exist.

DM: There are a lot of positive things to be taken from it. It’s basically telling you that you should question everything, always remember that.

DH: Yeah. It ticks every single box. There’s a big wow factor, too. You’ll be pretty amazed.

MADHOUSE re:exit runs at Shoreditch Town Hall from 13 to 28 March, before touring to the The Lowry’s Week 53 Festival in May.