Review: Batshit (Leah Shelton, Metro Arts & Brisbane Festival)

Leah Shelton, photographed by Joel Devereux

Content warning: Batshit refers to mental illness and institutionalised medical treatment. It also contains occasional coarse language, sexual references, haze/smoke effects, loud sounds, bright lighting flashes and strobe lighting effects.

Leah Shelton’s third solo show, Batshit, made its world premiere at Metro Arts as part of Brisbane Festival 2022, examining the cultural trope of the mad woman. Created, performed, and designed by Shelton and directed by Olivier Award-winning performance artist Ursula Martinez, Batshit used a variety of mediums to contemplate the ways in which women have been mistreated, misdiagnosed, medicated, and maligned by a patriarchal society and the catchall label “crazy”.

At the heart of the show was the story of Shelton’s grandmother, Gwen – married at 19, she was involuntarily admitted to Heathcote Hospital in the 1960s when she informed her husband and doctor that she wanted to leave her marriage, now that her children were adults. Subjected to high doses of medication and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) without her consent, Gwen was deemed well again when she became “quiet and pleasant” and agreed to return to her husband, regardless of the impact that these ‘treatments’ had on her memory and general wellbeing.

Leah Shelton, photographed by Joel Devereux

Batshit incorporated Leah Shelton’s personal perspective, shared through letters she had written to her grandmother Gwen, as well as a recording of conversations with her mother, Gwen’s daughter. It felt as though these three generations of women were in conversation with one another, although Gwen remained voiceless, represented through her medical records and others’ recollections of her. Shelton incorporated these personal aspects of the story seamlessly into the work, and her final, moving moment with a handcrafted washcloth was an emotional masterstroke.

Shelton made a memorable entrance to the stage, emerging in full vintage glamour from beneath the television set like a spectre. From there, interposed between video footage and excerpts from her grandmother’s medical records, she examined ideas of women and madness, from the ancient ‘wandering womb’ diagnosis of hysteria through to the defamation trial between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp which concluded earlier in 2022. Between these two points, she questioned the audience about their feelings, recounted her own experience of visiting the Heathcote Hospital site, and called upon the many ‘mad’ women of fiction and reality in the memorable final scene of the work.

Batshit used a wide range of mediums, from lip-sync and stand-up to dance, song, and physical theatre, but the work didn’t feel cluttered. On the contrary, the 50-minute show was well-organised and highly polished, both in terms of its interconnected storytelling and Shelton’s physical performance.

Sound design by Kenneth Lyons and lighting design by Jason Glenwright came together in surprising and theatrical ways, and shifted the mood of each scene as Shelton pulled the audience along from laughter to uncomfortable silence to tears and back again, her performance perfectly timed to the catchy soundtrack and voiceover elements. The set and costuming were predominantly in shades of white and pale green, traditionally associated with hospitals and clinical settings, and props were key to the performance, creating a kind of body horror (and humour) with extended and additional limbs.

A live feed camera in the corner amplified the themes of examination and surveillance in the work, with the feed shown on the television set on the opposite side of the stage. Historical footage of a man asking passers-by whether they thought Australian housewives led a dull or exciting life was contrasted against footage of a vox pop Shelton had undertaken, asking people on the street about “mad” women in the public eye, whether they had ever heard a man called hysterical, and whether they could think of a male equivalent for the term “crazy bitch”.  

Batshit was intense, funny, and confronting as it wove personal, political, and pop culture together in a very effective and seamless way. Shelton gave a vigorous performance and balanced the deeply personal aspects of the show with a broader social commentary on how we treat women and mental illness in a patriarchal society.

Batshit will play at Metro Arts, West End, from 21 – 24 September 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Metro Arts website

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