Disorder Contained by Peter Cann

A theatrical examination of madness, prisons and solitary confinement in a historical context, with great contemporary resonance. Performed at Rich Mix from Monday 9 October to Tuesday 10 October.

Disorder Contained examines the effects on mental health of the Separate System: a strict form of solitary confinement introduced in Irish and British prisons in the 19th century, originally aimed at reflection, repentance and reform, but later used as deliberate punishment.

The play draws on real experiences of different convicts in the 19th century, as told by themselves and the prison doctors, teachers, and chaplains: weaving these into a single story which reflects what it was like for people subjected to solitary confinement, and the effect it had on their mental health – in many cases leading to hallucinations, delusions and insanity.

Performed in the round, the show combines original music and song with striking set, lighting and soundscape, and powerful performances to address its difficult subject matter with wit and compassion.

A creative collaboration between acclaimed theatre company Talking Birds and the Centres for the History of Medicine in England and Ireland, Disorder Contained has many contemporary resonances, raising questions about approaches to mental health, punishment and containment. It will particularly appeal to anyone working in or interested in mental health, criminal/social justice and human rights.

Each performance will be followed by a post-show conversation with expert contributors.


Audiences will have an intimate experience, enabling them to connect closely with the characters and stories drawn from prisoners’ memoirs, doctors’ casebooks, and the reflections of prison staff, and to really get a sense of what it meant to be exposed to the Separate System.


Theatre company Talking Birds is known for its astonishing acts of transformation. It creates work using a unique brand of humour, music and visual brilliance, enabling people to understand and connect with a place and its history, which it revisits and interprets to give audiences a unique and moving experience.

Writer/director Peter Cann has worked extensively with Talking Birds, notably on the Asylum Trilogy. He is an associate artist with the UK companies Absolute Theatre and Centric Theatre, and has worked for Birmingham Rep, The Welsh National Opera and Pentabus Theatre, as well as internationally in South Africa and Portugal.

Derek Nisbet is a Composer, Musician, Sound Designer & Film-maker and co-Artistic Director of Talking Birds. His work with some of the leading artists of the day, (Claire Cunningham, Ockham’s Razor, Theatre Absolute) has been performed across the UK and internationally. He has a particular interest in making work accessible.

From set/costume designs for Belgrade Theatre and Birmingham Rep, to public art installations and Talking Birds’ mobile theatre the Whale, Designer and co-Artistic Director of Talking Birds, Janet Vaughan’s work is known for its striking visual flair. Her designs have twice represented the UK at the Prague Quadrennial World Scenography Exhibitions.

Associate Professor Catherine Cox, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland (University College Dublin), is co-Principal Investigator on Wellcome funded project Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. Other research explores migration and mental illness; cultures of care; and adolescence in modern Irish history.

Professor Hilary Marland, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine (University of Warwick), is co-Principal Investigator on Prisoners, Medical Care and Entitlement to Health in England and Ireland, 1850-2000. Her research has focused on the history of psychiatry, and the relationship between migration and mental illness.

Image credit: Andrew Moore


Audience comments from performances in Coventry, Dublin and Belfast:

“An extraordinarily powerful performance – made all the more so by the knowledge that it was based on historical records”

“Thought provoking and disturbing, yet brilliant.”

“Brilliant performance with thought-provoking and engaging storytelling”

“A thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating event. Well staged and performed”

“Fabulous production, uniquely executed. Not at all what I was expecting… engaging and emotive.”


‘We want to reach new audiences including both specialists/policy makers and the general public. Rich Mix is a vibrant and inviting venue which programmes interesting work, has a wide ranging and eclectic audience, and is brilliantly located and easy to travel to.’


Wesbite: www.talkingbirds.co.uk / https://histprisonhealth.com/

Follow: @birdmail @HistPrisnHealth #disordercontained


Please note: due to the subject matter, there are themes & scenes in the play that some people may find distressing.

All performances will be CAPTIONED (subtitled) to audiences’ mobile devices using Talking Birds’ Difference Engine (a new mobile app). If you would like to use this experimental service, please email access@talkingbirds.co.uk for more information.

This event is wheelchair accessible.