Manual Oracle

Phoebe von Held

Inspired by
Baltasar Gracian's Oraculo Manual

Texts by Baltasar Gracian, Phoebe von Held, Natasha Soobramanien, Gustav Strindberg, Luke Williams

Jamie Hamilton

Set and costumes
Moi Tran

Studio ZNA

Maria Paz Garcia

Terence Frisch, Peter Sandys-Clarke, Ruth D'Silva, Rosie Thomson 

The Yard Theatre: 27 May - 14 June 2014

Gwen Van Spijk / Cue Performance

The Manual Oracle is inspired by Gracián’s ‘Oráculo manual’, a seventeenth-century ‘self-help-book’ for strategic acting and psychological self-awareness, advising ambitious courtiers how to get ahead in their career at court and survive the backstabbing intrigues of others. Behind Gracián’s maxims of worldly wisdom there lies a paranoid message: other people are only waiting to harm you. If you want to get ahead in society, you must conceal your true nature. 

Unpicking the multiple layers of the original text, The Manual Oracle investigates the ambiguities between self-consciousness, strategic thinking and paranoia.  By following a cast of four through a kaleidoscope of contemporary scenarios, it reveals a mental  terrain shared by border-guards, migrants, bond-traders, spin-doctors, psychiatrists and schizophrenics. Whilst those in power benefit from a healthy portion of paranoid prudence, the very same patterns of thinking drag the disempowered into an abyss of isolation, mental chaos and terror.   Shifting between the deeply disconcerting and the absurdly funny, The Manual Oracle takes its audience on a journey through a society obsessed with surveillance, self-representation and manipulation, a world in which you should always act as if you were being watched.

Manual Oracle was programmed by Anxiety Arts Festival 2014. It was facilitated through a Leverhulme Artists in Residence Grant, grants by the ACE and the Maudsley Charity.

EVERYTHING THEATRE:**** A beautifully conceived variety of sketches that are well-executed, and thought-provoking... An issue-driven production that does not force the issue down your throat.

GUARDIAN (Lyn Gardner): Told through a series of 17th-century maxims, Phoebe von Held’s show brings an air of paranoia to the new Anxiety Arts Festival… Staged with flair and there are sparky moments ... not least, a Kafkaesque incident at a border control and a funny-sad sequence about a paranoid schizophrenic caught in a Catch-22 in which his determination to see his medical notes is perceived as a manifestation of his illness.

THE LANCET PSYCHIATRY: In one vignette, cycling orators reciting independent monologues, timed to ensure repeated distraction, vividly recreate an experience of hearing voices. These disquieting themes could have felt bleak; however, von Held's achievement is finding humour in despair... In the wake of US National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations of systematic surveillance, The Manual Oracle delivers on the festival's promise, challenging mental health stigma by convincingly demonstrating “how feeling anxious has become part of our contemporary condition”.

BARGAINTHEATRELAND : The illusion that life was easier in the past and that stress and anxiety is a uniquely contemporary plague is evidently one we’ve always suffered from. This very interesting subject matter is dealt with elegantly in Phoebe von Held’s accomplished production… By pointing out how close to paranoid Gracian’s maxims are, von Held’s play draws attention to the thin line between so-called normal self-protective behaviour and mental disorder… The script doesn’t shy away from the harshness of anxiety, but at the same time leaves room for humour.