Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Phoebe von Held: The Manual Oracle

By | Published on Monday 2 June 2014

The Manual Oracle, Conceived and assembled by Phoebe von Held

Here’s a show that immediately sounded intriguing to me; a play inspired by a seventeenth-century ‘self-help’ manual, exploring themes of paranoia, suspicion and self-confidence in the light of the individualistic, egotistical contemporary society we have created.

The piece is part of Anxiety 14, a brand new festival focusing on the effect of anxiety on modern day life, and has been created by director Phoebe von Held. I spoke to her about what we can expect from ‘The Manual Oracle’, and how it all came together.

CM: Can you give us a brief idea of what the show is about?
PVH: ‘The Manual Oracle’ is an adaptation of a seventeenth-century Machiavellian handbook of self-advancement, advising courtiers on how to get ahead in life, how to win the upper hand in court intrigues and see through conspiracies. The show explores the manual’s strategies of prudent acting in the context of our ego-driven individualistic society today; how our efforts to promote ourselves are often accompanied with a profound sense of self-consciousness, mistrust in others and even paranoia.

CM: What form does it take? Does it have a central narrative?
PVH: Rather than restricting the content of the piece to a single perspective narrative, the show consists of a kaleidoscope of 10 scenarios, juxtaposing the narratives of people who would apply the instructions of ‘The Manual Oracle’ successfully with those who would be crushed by them. In this way similarities can be carved out between, for example, the sceptical thinking of bond traders speculating the 2008 financial crash, and on the other hand, the paranoid voices experienced by those suffering from psychosis. The question is, where lies the boundary between healthy and unhealthy forms of mistrust. Is paranoia in fact a value that is promoted in our society that can help people to fulfil their ego-driven ambitions.

CM: It’s inspired by aforementioned 1647 ‘self help’ work ‘Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence’. How does the work inform this piece?
PVH: ‘The Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence’ was written by a Spanish Jesuit monk called Baltasar Gracian during the time of the inquisition. When I first read this book of maxims, I found Gracian’s strategic and self-guarded approach to social interaction quite unpleasant. But life in society does expose us to situations where we are required to protect ourselves, so Gracian’s warnings do at points ring very true, even if in an uncomfortable way.

The original ‘Manual Oracle’ maxims very much capture the thinking of our ‘inner courtier’ today who looks towards society as an arena of self-empowerment, but also as a place of embattled competition where we need to protect ourselves. This new play recognizes the powerful legacy of Gracian’s thinking and the Renaissance cultural backdrop from which it emerged, but it also reflects critically on these attitudes towards social interaction, showing that the cult of an aggressive and often anti-social individualism that originated in the Renaissance is a tough challenge to bear psychologically.

CM: What made you choose to explore these themes – paranoia, suspicion and self-consciousness?
PVH: These are very timely issues. Gracian’s maxims bring out a really fascinating paradox: the more we are aware of our public self-image, the more we might become obsessed with a paranoid sense of being watched. ‘Always act as If you were being watched’, Gracian instructs us. With the advent of CCTV, virtual surveillance and fears of states and corporations invading our lives, we are all familiar with the anxieties of being watched.

The completion of my play coincided with Edward Snowden’s revelations of unparalleled levels of state surveillance affecting our online existence. We all know now that our quest to interact, to expand our social world, and to promote ourselves, also exposes us to the danger of being spied upon. The piece thus creates a sliding scale between the calculated voices of reason and the persecutory voices of paranoia. “Normality” and “psychosis” are not black and white binaries, but are shown to exist on a continuum.

CM: The show has been developed in collaboration with psychologists, psychiatrists, patients and other writers and artists. How were these collaborations arranged, and how did they help to bring the project together?
PVH: The ideas for this piece and the script were initially developed through a Leverhulme Artist’s Residency at the Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, which hosts a world-leading research group on paranoia. I collaborated with mental health service users suffering from paranoia, researchers and specialists on paranoia, PhD students and therapists, reading Gracián together, discussing case studies, finding out more about the personal experience of paranoia and psychosis, and about the social contexts that contribute to the development of paranoid schizophrenia.

From these discussions I developed a number of ‘scenarios’ that were rewritten into the scenes of the new play. Service users also advised on the experience of hearing voices, which our sound designer Jamie Hamilton translated into a harrowing soundscape for the show. I also commissioned some of the scenes to be written by novelists Natasha Soobramanien (‘Genie and Paul’, Myriad, 2012) and Luke Williams (‘The Echo Chamber’, Penguin, 2012). Ideas for these pieces similarly emerged from discussions with collaborators based at the Institute of Psychiatry.

CM: This is part of Anxiety 14, a new London based arts festival. Can you tell us a little about the festival and what its aims are?
PVH: Anxiety 2014 is a new interdisciplinary Arts Festival set up by the Mental Health Foundation UK. It explores anxiety as a mood, a sensibility and force that characterises and gives shape to our life today — socially, culturally and psychologically. The curators of Anxiety 2014 have put together an incredibly wide-ranging and fascinating programme of art events, talks and opportunities for exchange encompassing the visual arts, music, film and performing arts in key venues across London.

The main programme will run throughout London and you can find out more about it on the website. ‘Manual Oracle’ is organising an after-show talk at The Yard with Festival 2014 curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, Dr Emmanuelle Peters (clinical psychology) and Professor Michael Newman (art writing) on 5 June.

CM: As a director, you seem to lean towards the examination of what’s behind contemporary sociological and political mores – why do you find this area so compelling?
PVH: For me, one of the greatest inspirations in the past years has been David Simon’s ‘The Wire’, which shifts the focus from the individual to the complex dramas of larger collectives, looking at the cross-influences between different social groups under the pressure of political, economic and sociological conditions, and how these large-scale collective interactions affect the individuals belonging to them. David Simon’s sociologically interested TV drama has shown how exciting realism can be when it asks questions about the realities and key sociological influences that shape our life collectively. This form of realism has the power to put spectators in touch with the reality they form part of. We need more of it. The individual is overrated as a focal point in the arts and drama. It is overrated, escapist and limiting. It seems much more exciting to look at a plurality of experiences and the larger collective and political influences that give shape to our experience today.

CM: Do you have any new projects lined up?
PVH: I am currently planning a new translation / adaptation project of one of Brecht’s incomplete plays, which is only left in fragments and different versions and which has never been staged before in English. Brecht wrote this play during his most creative phase in the late twenties when his formal and political experimentalism was reaching its absolute peak.

‘The Manual Oracle’ is on at The Yard Theatre until 14 Jun. See the venue website for more info and tickets.