Writer Aled Jones Williams has used his own experiences and former medical records of an old mental health hospital to create a performance that is set to entertain and educate. Jamie Bowman finds out more...

IT sounds more like something from a horror film but an abandoned Victorian insane asylum in North Wales has now inspired a new play to be performed in Rhos, in Wrexham, this spring.

Following a request in 2012 by psychiatric doctors in Bangor, the artistic team at Frân Wen theatre company used medical records from the North Wales Hospital (locally known as Denbigh Mental or Denbigh Asylum) as inspiration for a live theatre production.

Fast forward six years, and that story - Anweledig - is set to hit Wales’ largest theatres this February and March.

Written by acclaimed author Aled Jones Williams, the Welsh language show stars actress Ffion Dafis, who plays the part of Glenda, a bank clerk diagnosed with severe depression who is admitted into Denbigh mental health hospital.

Delivered in monologue, the play follows her heart-rending, traumatic and hopeful journey.

“This is the first time I’ve performed on my own on a main-stage production, so I’m really excited and nervous,” says Ffion. “Having been six years in the making, developing the show has been a natural evolution.

“We started off with work-in-progress performances in small intimate venues but as Aled developed the script further, it became clear that Glenda’s story needed the main stage setting.

“We’re going to use the large space to our advantage [the Stiwt Theatre] - yes, I’m out there on my own but you won’t be disappointed when you see how the whole set, projections and music have been designed around my character.

“We can’t wait to share the whole story for the first and last time.”

The North Wales Hospital is a Grade II listed building in Denbigh.

Designed by architect Thomas Fulljames, building started in 1844 and was completed in 1848.

Initially a hospital for up to 200 people with psychiatric illness, by the mid-20th century it housed 1,500 patients.

The institution was wound down as a healthcare facility from 1991, finally closing in 2002.

There was much damage caused to the structure and its contents in the years subsequent to closure.

The site was compulsorily purchased by Denbighshire Council in 2018 and plans are now afoot for its redevelopment as housing.

“Anweledig helps us to understand, humanize and sympathise with how people experience depression,” says Aled, who also drew on his experiences of suffering from depression

“When I was ill there were lots of people who would help me, but as I got better, people found it more difficult.

“There’s a line in the play where it says that illness is strangely straightforward, but healing is often messy.

“I was easier to treat when I was ill, but then people would expect me to jump up and say ‘right, I’m fine now,’ - but I wasn’t. The other thing is the relapse. It will happen. Everybody slips but you don’t go back to the same place.

“Getting better is a process, not a one-day event.”

Director Sara Lloyd is convinced people will walk from the auditorium having enjoyed the experience, despite the gruelling subject matter.

“I want them to walk out thinking a bit differently about the illness.

“Hopefully they will be entertained, they will laugh and cry, but they will feel more positive about depression.

“Every single member of our audience will be able to relate to it in some way or another. Depression and mental health are issues that have touched us all.

“Aled is an honour and a delight to work with because he is such a generous author, always ready to discuss all aspects of his work.

“His work entertains because his natural humour always shines through - he knows this world, the dark and the light, and there is something very real about it.

“There is always a deeper meaning to his work, always multi-layered and his scripts are like pieces of music, his rhythm is a delight to listen to and that’s what carries the audience through the story.

“In this powerful and harrowing play we get to follow Glenda’s fiercely personal anguish as she confronts the illness and faces life outside of hospital.

“How will she, her family and friends deal with the traumatic reality of recovery and will she find light at the end of the tunnel?

“The ultimate aim is to give a stage to this illness that is often hidden and kept out of sight.”

Alongside the production, Frân Wen have commissioned the artist Mirain Fflur, who’ll use the show’s narrative and stories from the old hospital as inspiration for an exhibition that will run alongside every show.

“We’re looking for personal stories from families and individuals who have in some way been affected by the hospital,” said Carl Owen from Frân Wen.

“All these personal experiences will be included as part of an art exhibition, which will tour alongside the production and will give the audiences a better insight into the hospital’s legacy.

“Anweledig has been inspired by old medical records, but it would help us to get a fuller picture if we could hear from others who have experiences from the former asylum.

“We’ll share these stories with Anweledig’s visual artist Mirain, who’ll then transform the narrative into artwork for the exhibition that will run alongside every show.”

The production and exhibition will take place at the Stiwt, in Rhos (March 26-27). Tickets and further information visit www.franwen.com

To share your North Wales Hospital stories please contact: carl@franwen.com