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The Manual Oracle at The Yard Theatre Hackney Wick

The Manual OracleThe Manual Oracle: Exploring theatricality, self-consciousness and paranoia with inspiration from Baltasar Gracian’s curious 1647 guide on surviving the intrigues of court, directed and adapted by Phoebe von Held.

Developed in collaboration with psychologists, psychiatrists, patients and other writers and artists. this multi-disciplinary performance explores contemporary manifestations of paranoia, suspicion and self-consciousness, inspired by possibly the world’s first ‘self-help’ book’, the 1647 Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence. The piece creates a kaleidoscope of short scenarios, visual tableaux and sound pieces that explore the theme of paranoia amongst the context of contemporary issues, such as racist xenophobia, surveillance and political rhetoric.

Director/adapter Phoebe von Held commenced development on the production having been awarded a Leverhulme Artists Residency, hosted by the Institute of Psychiatry King’s College London and follow-up funding from Arts Council England and Maudsley Charity. The script was developed in two research and development phases and shown in work-in-progress showings in 2011 and 2013, including specially commissioned scenes by debut novelists Natasha Soobramanien (‘Genie and Paul’, Myriad 2012) and Luke Williams (‘The Echo Chamber’, Penguin, 2012). The project also includes the development of creative writing and acting workshops for NHS mental health service users, in particular people having experienced paranoid thinking.

The performance is programmed at The Yard Theatre as part of Anxiety 2014, a new London wide arts festival that explores how the concepts of anxiety are lived, perceived and represented by artists, individuals and communities. The festival runs throughout June 2014 spanning venues and spaces across the city, from grass-roots community centres to London’s leading cultural and academic organisations. The festival aims to challenge the stigma and discrimination that surrounds mental illness through an interdisciplinary programme of visual art, film, performance, music, dance, theatre and talks.

Baltasar Gracian’s 1647 Manual Oracle, or the Art of Prudence offers advice on surviving the intrigues of the court in 300 maxims. A Jesuit monk, Gracian, considers how to act in public, how to retain the upper hand over one’s competitors, and how to conceal one’s true self and play a role, simulating false intentions through instructions comparable to the methods of the stage actor. Suspicion features strongly, as is the assumption that others are trying to harm you, evoking a mental world where paranoia has become command: “always act as if you are being watched!” (Maxim 297).

Writer and director Phoebe von Held said “What is striking about Gracian’s ‘Manual Oracle’ is that it aims to teach people how to develop their social skills and social intelligence, yet this is based on the assumption that our interactions within society are ruled by competitiveness and hostility. Society is presented as a dangerous place where we must be constantly on the watch. In today’s culture, which is obsessed with surveillance, self-representation and manipulation, I think that Gracian resonates very strongly. But there is also a lot of humour in our ongoing efforts of presenting ourselves to our fellow human beings in the most favourable light; in our attempts to watch ourselves and see beyond the masks of other people.”

An ongoing interest in Phoebe’s work as a director is the investigation of different manifestations of alienation characterising our postmodern condition. By using enigmatic historical texts as a starting point and projecting their resonances on to contemporary contexts, she seeks to probe into the conditions that determine today’s life politically, psychologically and sociologically. Phoebe von Held’s previous work as director, adaptor, translator and designer includes: Rameau’s Nephew (1998) and The Nun (2003) both at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; and animation works; D’Alembert’s Dialogues (2005) and Chrysalis (2008) shown as part of the exhibition Crossing-Over: Encounters between Art & Biotechnology, Royal Institution, London.


Supported with public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and funding from The Maudsley Charity

Running Time: 90 minutes (approx) Suitable for 14+


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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