The recent production of All you need is LSD at the Tobacco Factory completely breaks down the formal and structural boundaries of a conventional play. By detaching itself from classical forms of theatre, the play is able to introduce a new way of thinking about the mind-altering drug LSD. In the 90s, playwright Leo Butler was invited by psycho-pharmacist Professor David Nutt to be a guinea pig in some pioneering LSD-assisted science. The play follows Leo’s own experience, making him not only the playwright, but the also the protagonist.
Leo’s own story is the perfect hook on which to hang the historical scenes, ideas and themes we see throughout the play. The audience is taken on a whistle stop tour of LSD starting with its accidental discovery by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, who by chance ingested an active quantity of lysergic acid, the psychoactive substance in LSD. Afterwards he experienced an ‘unusual’ bike ride home. This is now known as the first ever ‘trip’.
The play then portrays some of the drugs psychiatric use in the late 1950s, followed by its decline within modern science, coinciding with its absorption and ensuing prohibition by the 1960’s flower-power movement and government of the time. The historical elements of the play are enlightening, setting the scene for a psychoactive joyride through time and place. The audience is able to see how LSD was misused, explaining some of the political motives which might have caused its illegalisation.
A number of trippy theatrical devices provide the audience with a very visceral experience of what taking LSD might feel like. The scenes melt in to one another: they repeat, rewind and dissipate completely. The play contains guest appearances from Alice (famously from Wonderland), the White Rabbit, Doctor Who (of course) and even Dame Helen Mirren. The set is made up of geometric shapes and a literal rabbit hole into which the actors regularly fall. The audience is forcibly engulfed by this trippy universe. The comedic style of the play grasps the essence of how silly and exciting LSD can be. These theatrics, paired with the historical context of the drug, make it all the more appealing.
So, as the play’s title proposes, do we need LSD? In his book Food of Gods, Terence McKenna argues that our encounter with magic mushrooms enabled our species to evolve beyond its prehistoric animalistic nature. He claimed that psilocybin caused the rapid evolution of consciousness. This is called the ‘Stoned Ape Hypothesis’ and is ultimately impossible to prove. However, recent developments in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs have suggested that they can in fact alter our state of consciousness for the better. This is termed as the third and final wave of human-psychedelic integration, following age-old indigenous use and the somewhat excited spike of interest back in the 60’s.
Clinical trials have shown that a psychedelic experience can lift severe depression for treatment-resistant individuals. One theory as to why these psychedelics are effective is that psychedelics temporarily unhinge the default mode network of the brain, creating a more flexible state of consciousness. One is then able to perceive themselves and the world around them in new and interesting ways. The neuroscientist Mendel Kaleen asks us to imagine our brain as a snow-covered mountain, and our thoughts as sledges following previously ingrained tracks. Psychedelics help to wipe the mountain clean of existing tracks, so our thought processes can explore new avenues and tributaries.
Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections suggests another theory: that psychedelics can stimulate a dissolution of the ego. With a tamed, less effectual ego, we are able to see the world as is, rather than translated through our self-judgment. Of course, our ego is important in helping us navigate through complex social life, but in contemporary society the inflation of the ego has dampened the essence of connection with nature and with other people.
At a talk I attended held by a member of the psychedelic society, the speaker Michael suggested that the majority of people have developed a tendency to live for the peak experiences in life, despite the fact that the majority of our time is made up of normalcy. A peak experience might be a party you’ve been invited to on Thursday night, some fine-dining perhaps, or even an orgasm. On the other hand, an average experience might include the commute to work, teeth-brushing and shopping for food. We are often not present or connected during these day to day tasks. Michael advocated psychedelic drugs for their ability to place you firmly in the present moment: the everlasting now. This can help one rekindle a connection with the world around you, highlighting the beauty in the mundane. Michael went onto describe his wondrous appreciation for the blueness of the handrails found throughout London’s underground system. For a further example I suggest you research Aldous Huxley trousers…
Let’s be clear though, Michael was in no way suggesting we should be high on psychedelic drugs all the time - nor should they be available at your nearest off license (imagine). But he did allude to the fact that a psychedelic experience nudges the brain towards a heightened sensory existence.
The drug LSD is branded as a Class A drug. When we look at a study by the Independent Science Committee comparing the effects of harmful drugs, LSD and Mushrooms seem far less harmful than substances which are regularly consumed every day. The most harmful is alcohol! When LSD was initially illegalised it was openly stated that it was because it was perceived to have undermining effects on the values of the Western middle class. Leo and the psychedelic society are in agreement with the idea that the motive for this classification is more likely to be political than medical. In my interview with Leo he said: ‘Remember how the Tories outlawed the parties and the raves of the ‘90’s? It wasn’t the music or the glow-sticks they were against, it was the political act of people from all walks of life, all cultures, coming together outside of the capitalist system and enjoying themselves – a psychedelic union. The conservative agenda doesn’t want anyone looking outside of the system because they want to control the system and control the way we think about the system, which, in a conservative universe, is individualistic and puritanical.’
Leo put forward a very interesting point and Psytrance rave culture perfectly illustrates the psychedelic union he talks about. However, this line of argument is often hard to maintain. It’s difficult to articulate without sounding too much like a zealous liberal using drug legislation to prove yet another problem with our political structure. It’s also hard to avoid being pigeonholed into a box of critique left behind by the psychedelic 60’s and their troubles…
We do know that psychedelics have potentially harmful effects. But then again, there are far more damaging effects which exist from drinking, as the graph above illustrates. When taking acid you are more likely to have an aesthetic revolution than to start a drunken fight. Alcohol has propelled many people into depression and addiction. LSD has already been proven to help treat both of those problems. So what warrants such dramatic distinctions in classifications? I won’t deny that the evidence in its favour is alluring.
Aldous Huxley famously took LSD on his death bed, and this scene is tenderly re-enacted at the end of the play. The drug seems to replace anxiety and fear of death with feelings of content and euphoria. Obviously, we can never know what Aldous really felt. The play, after all, is a dramatization, and how can we know what an experience of the drug is really like with such strict regulations surrounding the drug. But just think - what if the drug was to be intelligently regulated or made at least medically accessible in this rapidly changing world? What would become of us?