Freeman by Camilla Whitehill and Strictly Arts – Streatham Space Project, London
Freeman is a startling and exceptional piece of theatre, and its run in Streatham is a coup for the still relatively new Streatham Space Project theatre is a coup. Winner of a Spirit of the Fringe award at Edinburgh last summer, the four-hander packs a devastating critique of racism and mental health provision in Britain and the US into a whirlwind hour. We soon realise that the four characters addressing us through their pain are dead, one only two years ago and another as far back as 1846. Their stories, gradually unwound, are not as different as we might imagine. In fact, they are grimly similar. Three are black and the fourth white, but deep discrimination runs through their mistreatment. The play aims at the failure to care for those suffering from mental health problems in prison, based around two pioneering cases in which the accused pled not guilty through reason of insanity. In doing so, it lays open the raw wound of racism across western society.
One of the cases is William Freeman, brain damaged from beatings in prison where he was sent by authorities who neither knew nor cared whether he was guilty. After release, he murdered an entire family. The play deals with some of the darkest material that could be imagined on a stage, and all of it is true. The stories laid before us shame the system, which continues to deal out appalling mistreatment. The play also deals with the heartbreaking harassment to death of a blameless black motorist in 2017. However, despite the harsh material the company delivers performances the audience cannot turn away from. Operating on a compact stage, the actors make movement an integral part of the show including some extraordinary physical feats. The acting from all four is also subtle and moving as they switch confidently across characters, accents and centuries.
The show’s atmosphere flicks from graveyard menace to a Lagos party scene to an intimidating encounter with a police officer as though as the touch of a switch, helped by strong sound a simple but clever set with a floor that reflect the action, ghost-like, on to a back sheet. Freeman’s verdict is that a failure to treat everyone with the same respect has infected our society. Mental healthcare failings, often overshadowed by more obvious acts of violence, cannot be ignored.
Freeman has now closed at Streatham Space, but is touring until the end of June and is highly recommended.