Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Doctor will see you now

Over a year ago, a strange place by Paddington Station in London closed its doors to the public for the last time. Within the red-brick walls of a former Royal Mail sorting office had been the world of Temple Studios, part of The Drowned Man, a massive immersive theatre production by Punchdrunk, in association with the National Theatre. Over four floors of this building were intricately detailed sets, through which a cast, pursued by audience members wearing white masks, danced, ran and fought. I loved it.

For some audience members, the experience became an obsession and, whilst I went a few times, it never became completely overwhelming for me. The modern dance, whilst impressive in its way, was not particularly interesting for me. No, for me, it was the chance to wander around what felt like genuine films sets; to, as the recurring line from the lay ran, live within a dream.

On my first visit, I had watched occasional audience members be singled out by performers, and be taken into private rooms for what became known, within the audience members social network, as "one to ones". On subsequent visits, I had experienced some of my own - with the greengrocer, the strange owner of the toyshop, the seamstress, but on the final occasion I visited, I hoped to have a one to one with the doctor, whom I had also seen early on my first trip.

That final night, with two or three other audience members, I had watched the doctor make a Rorschach test in his office, dripping ink into a folded piece of paper, unfolding it and considering the resulting pattern. Again, with others I followed him outside, and then watched as he took another white masked audience member into the private consultation room. Pah! I thought, and wandered off to see something else in the labyrinthine set.

Later, I wandered back through the doctor's main examination room, and saw the doctor again. This time, I must have been in the right place at the right time. He sauntered out of his office and I happened to be in front of him outside the consultation room. He fished in his pocket for his keys, and with hooded lids looked up at me.

"All right," he said, almost grudgingly. "I'll see you now. Come in."

He opened the door into the consulting room and we went inside. He locked the door behind us, took off the mask I was wearing and gestured for me to sit on the consulting table.

"How have you been?" he asked. "Have you been having any more of those bad feelings we talked about? No dark thoughts?"

"No," I said, trying to keep in character. He nodded and looked me up and down, as if assessing how I was doing.

"I'm going to show you some pictures," he said, reaching for a box on the side, "and I want you to tell me what you see. Ok?"

"Sure," I replied.

He nodded some more and held out one Rorschach picture for me to examine. "What do you see?"

I thought for a bit, and then said, "A skull." He mulled this over and then put the picture away, bringing out another.

"How about this one?"

Part of me wanted to say something silly, but there was something profoundly hypnotic about the situation, so I looked at it again. He asked again, "What do you see?"

"A hanged man." I said, despite myself. He reflected on this for a moment, and looked at me. "'A hanged man', huh?"

"Yeah," I replied.

He thought for a bit longer, and tilted his head form side to side, as if judging the weight of what I had said. Then he looked at me, still thoughtful. "Hang-dang," he half sang, slightly mocking. "Hang-dang... ding-dang."

He was staring at me quite intently, and I was strongly conscious of a desire to smile or laugh, in spite of the strangeness of the moment; the same sort of crazy impulse that makes people laugh at funerals - it's the worst possible thing one could do, which is why it becomes almost the only thing one wants to do.

He put the pictures away and sat next to me on the consulting table. He looked at me, keeping eye contact, then he looked away.

"Nobody likes you," he said, half matter of factly, half aggressively. "People avoid you." Then he nodded, as if that part of the consultation was over, and told me to face the wall, on which was an eye chart. He told me to read it, and I did, line my line.

Half way through, he clamped one hand over my eyes, and the other around the back of my head. All the time, music was swelling around us, and he talked directly into my ear, as he massaged my head.

"You like people," he said. "People like you. You are friendly. You are tidy. When you see a piece of paper on the floor you pick it up."

Then the music reached a crescendo, and it was over. He put my mask back on and led me towards the door, pausing slightly. I looked down where we were standing, and saw a piece of paper on the floor. I bent down to pick it up, I pocketed it, without looking at it, and left the consulting room, as he opened the door.

When I had crossed the boardroom beyond his corridor, I un-crumpled the paper, and written on it were the words, "You're making good progress."

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