The Bird of Paradise

From demonstrating comical horror stories of his medical school training, to becoming the most famous practicing psychiatrist in the world, Dr. R.D. Laing leads us through the streets of Glasgow and on up to the proverbial mountaintop ~ to his hallucinatory vision of The Bird of Paradise, a ritual invocation, and a challenge to the audience to embark on their own journey of inner self discovery.

“There is the story of the patient in a lie detector, who when asked if he was Napoleon, replied – no! The lie detector recorded that he was lying…”

Is the narrator really a Doctor? Is this a patient under a delusion of grandeur? Or is this a clown ~ finding the best way to face his experience, by exploring this crucial chapter of Laing’s life as reflected in his own. Exposing at the same time the mind behind the myth that is R.D. Laing.

After publication of The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise (1967) – in the heady midst of the summer of love R.D. Laing was tipped by many to become the new iconic leader of the countercultural revolution. He was famous for his controversial theories on the origins of madness being rooted in the family, and for using LSD (with home office permission) in one to one therapy sessions with patients.

Laing made clear sense of the expressions of previously misunderstood ‘Psychotic’ and ‘Schizophrenic’ patients, questioning the very basis of the diagnostic and treatment models and their application. He and his theories are now often as dismissed as the people he strove to understand, empathise with and help.

The abstract prose chapter The Bird of Paradise provides a gateway to understanding Laing and why he formed his revolutionary ideas. It is R.D. Laing’s challenge to the psychiatric establishment and to contemporary morality, articulating his own brushes with madness and examining the often dehumanising system of psychiatry and western medical practice.

This text has formed the basis of a personal research practice and intensive actor training since 2009, under the guidance of pedagogue, performer and teacher Gey Pin Ang, a long term associate of Jerzy Grotowski and the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards.

After years of developing the text, with permission from the R.D.Laing estate, and Penguin publishers, Benedict Power and I brought a work in progress of this to the stage.

Mental health issues currently affect 1 in 4 people annually in the UK. There has been a 10% increase in sectioning under the mental health act in this past year alone, alongside a 20% increase in suicides over the last 2 years, with suicide now the leading cause of death for those aged 20 – 34, and men under 50. The NHS is struggling to cope, while these issues continue to grow exponentially. Mental health care in the UK is currently considered to be in crisis. What is to be done?

This play will be used as a platform for generating debate, exploring the impact of Laing’s work and the questions he raised about the directions we in the west have taken in delivering psychiatric treatment. Our aim is to raise awareness of and hope for integrating alternative pathways to recovery.

Additional participatory activities include practical workshops and forum discussions, alongside online materials engaging audiences with an interest in, or experience of, mental health issues and treatment.

Further wrap-around activities will include performance and multimedia related workshops.


I recently attended a short sharing of some new work, entitled The Bird of Paradise at the Lowry Studio. This work was embryonic in form but had within the seed of a fascinating exploration of sanity, and psychiatry. The questions the team intend to raise with this piece are currently at the forefront of societal concerns as the NHS faces a funding and resource crisis and mental health services struggle under the strain.

The Royal Exchange are happy to support, where and when possible, this work under the Open Exchange programme.

Matthew Xia 

Associate Artistic Director 

The Royal Exchange Theatre



Garth Williams undertook a first full R&D week here at The Lowry for Dr. Doctor & The Bird Of Paradise. The project came on a significant way during this week, resulting in a much clearer sense of narrative approach. In particular it was good to see Garth beginning to embrace his own place in the narrative and to explore how autobiographic material might sit alongside primary material about Laing. I believe Garth is now at the right stage to undertake focussed work with a dramaturg and director to explore some of the outcomes from this week and move the production to the next stage.

Claire Symonds
Theatres Programmer and Producer 

The Lowry Theatre

Garth uses drama to present a real-life sense of what it’s like to live through recovering from mental illness and the ensuing psychiatric treatment, in an engaging, entertaining and moving way. I’ve seen the way he is developing this work, and found it powerful and informative, as well as very good fun to watch. He hopes the production can stimulate debate and discussion among a range of audiences. I am sure it will help to create a greater understanding of mental health, including among those who have experienced mental illness themselves or in someone close to them, and those with little experience who feel uneasy, ill-informed or curious. I hope he will get the support to develop the work and to present it to a variety of audiences.

Kate Green

Labour MP For Stretford & Urmston

In March 2016 I saw a work in progress of Dr Dr & The Bird of Paradise, an experimental piece of theatre integrating live performance with multimedia. A powerful premise, it would benefit greatly from dramaturgical support and further research and development, including developing the character narratives. But already it shows a huge potential to inform audiences in an engaging way about what it is like to experience mental disturbance and psychiatric treatment, introducing the audience to the work of psychiatrist R.D.Laing. It is a relevant work which is timely and I would be very interested in seeing it developed fully.

Tom Hogan

Artistic Director

Proud & Loud Arts

I have known Garth Williams since 1999 when he was an undergraduate on BA (Hons) Acting Studies at the Arden School of Theatre in Manchester. This course provided a thorough practical training for actors combined with a rigorous academic programme, the latter part taken only by a small number of students in each cohort as it involved an extra year of study. This part of the programme provided a great deal of scope for students to make their own original performance work and Garth embraced this with a passion, creating work of a high artistic standard that also enjoyed critical success.

Since his graduation I have observed Garth’s career with interest as he has followed what might be seen as an eclectic path though a wide range of interests. This partly reflects his somewhat ‘omnivorous’ approach to learning whereby he has developed considerable skill in multimedia performance, film and photography alongside developing his performance skills. Indeed I have been happy to employ Garth on a number of occasions as a photographer of performance work in Drama at the University of Manchester. At the same time he has enjoyed much success with his outdoor work, recreating pieces that have already been developed as well as making his own original work for outdoor performance.

Garth is using this body of experience to extend developmental work that he has been undertaking for some time based on R.D. Laing’s writing and ideas, especially focusing on what remains a key work in psychotherapy, Laing’s Bird of Paradise, first published in 1967. I have watched with interest as he has taken this work through a very careful and thorough process of development and have played a small part in providing some dramaturgical advice to early work on this text as well as seen some of the performance work that has developed from this. I am fascinated by Garth’s proposal to develop a strong piece of performance based on Laing’s text that would be highly suitable for showing in a theatrical setting. This is interesting and radical thinking which I hope will be supported.

I am happy to continue to support Garth’s work. He is a hard-working artist who has embraced with enthusiasm all of the opportunities that have come his way. However, he has not simply waited for opportunities to present themselves but has been proactive in creating openings and in developing new and interesting performance work which is different to much other work that I have seen. There is an opportunity here to: explore the relationship between ‘popular’ and ‘high’ art; to extend ideas and practice around adaptation from extant text; to produce work which has the potential to challenge thinking on a major issue like medical approaches to psychotherapy at the same time as being entertaining and accessible. I hope this work can be supported.

Dr. Alison Jeffers

School of Arts Languages and Cultures

University of Manchester 

I have known Garth Williams for about eighteen years both as a student, when I was his physical theatre lecturer, and as an employee. He has worked for me as a performer and devisor most recently in the Cabaret of Dr. Caligari where he demonstrated strong improvisational and clowning skills. He is adaptable and able to take in his stride the unconventional circumstances thrown up by street theatre; his mime hula act proved a favourite throughout the tour and he has very strong musical skills.

I have also used him in the past as a photographer and videographer in which areas he works at a professional level…

He has in my experience been reliable, honest, well organised, hardworking and trustworthy. I hold him in high esteem and would thoroughly recommend him to you for support of this project.

James Macpherson

Artistic Director

Artizani Street Theatre / University Lecturer in Physical Theatre  

Competent and persistent in his chosen arts, Mr Williams demonstrated an acute seriousness and immersive interest, following worksession after worksession conducted by myself. He has always shown deep interest and need for a consistent training for actors, in parallel to his personal training in Tai Chi Quan, and developing his work through a continuous research on the actor’s craft in practice, and his director’s skill in theatre montage, through different phases of his work on The Bird of Paradise in close collaboration with myself.

I perceive within him a real urge and need for the work, and see a lack of opportunity afforded him to realise his goals. Therefore he would creatively utilize whatever support he can gain.

This would enable his aims to continue his development as an artist and as a person (in Stanislavski’s sense – the quality of the actor is also the quality of the person) and his ongoing creative work.

I sincerely call upon your generous support to Mr Williams’ work. Mr Williams would definitely inspire other artists and audiences. I assure you that he has shown such a rare quality. In conclusion, he would serve as a great asset to the arts community through engaging in this challenge of creating these new theatrical works.

Gey Pin Ang

Actor, Director and Teacher of Physical Theatre Training

Founder and Artistic Director of Sourcing Within. Co-Founder Theatre Ox. Lead performer in One Breath Left and Dies Irae (Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski & Thomas Richards). 

Alumni of 9 years at The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards working on above name productions.