Thursday, 1 April 2021

REVIEW: Hysterical! The Hilarious History of Hysteria at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (Online)

Hysterical! is a wonderfully unusual production; it is equal parts personal, informative, and entertaining. Rebecca Buckle’s comedy lecture brings an important perspective to the long, troubling, and absurd history of hysteria, and sheds light on its modern-day consequences.

Hysteria is a difficult subject to handle well, but Buckle and director, Mina Barber, manage to find a good balance between the ‘hilarious’ aspects of its history and the seriousness of its implications. The history is at times ridiculous, even funny, but its consequences, the suffering the concept of ‘hysteria’ caused and continues to cause, are not. Buckle never loses sight of this and is able to lean into the more comic moments without undermining the gravity of the issue.

The film highlights how a long history of belief in ‘hysteria’, a diagnosis mostly levelled at women, continues to endanger women’s health today. Throughout the film, Buckle’s personal experiences of being patronised, disbelieved, and ignored by doctors for years intercut her lighthearted lecture with black and white flashbacks to GP appointments. Whilst at first these cuts can be a little jarring, due to the dramatic switches in tone, they ultimately give the history the real personal context which makes Buckle’s telling of it so effective. 

The changes in tone and style within the overall lecture structure, whilst not always perfect, keep the film engaging throughout. By making use of different camera angles, cartoons, historical imagery, and formats - even including a chat with a puppet Freud over Zoom - Hysterical! takes advantage of its being a digital release to create something unique. 

Buckle’s presentation does not rely too heavily on these aspects either - she is an engaging and knowledgeable guide through a long and fascinating history that goes from wandering wombs to witchcraft, from modern dance to the first vibrators and even addresses the biblical beginnings of belittling women’s pain.

Many women, myself included, will resonate with the experience of feeling invalidated in a medical setting. It is an issue with life and death consequences, as Buckle brings home when she uses examples from recent research. One study from UCL, for example, showed women are less likely to be diagnosed with bowel cancer than men, despite going to the doctor more frequently about it, and a third will therefore be diagnosed at a late stage in an emergency setting.

The importance of knowledge - knowing your own body, knowing the history that influences us still, and of doctors being aware of their unconscious biases - is what the lecture boils down to. Women should not be afraid to show emotions in a medical setting, for fear of their symptoms being put down to mental health issues without proper investigation. Being more aware of the history of hysteria is an important step towards recognising and outgrowing its continued influence.

Hysterical! feels like something everyone should see for this reason, and everyone who wants to can do so easily - it is free to watch and is available with BSL interpretation, audio descriptions and captioning. At just over 45 minutes long, Hysterical! is an accessible and enjoyable way to learn about hysteria’s history and its’ modern-day link to women’s health. 

Hysterical! The Hilarious History of Hysteria is available on the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s website and YouTube Channel from the 29th March 2021.

Review by Jasmine Silk

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: Free

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