Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Washington State, 1910. “Doctor” Linda Hazzard opens her sanatorium to the public. The public do not always survive… Fast by Kate Barton is a new dark drama based on true events. Complex, beguiling and utterly driven, Hazzard advocated a fasting cure that killed many of her patients and eventually put her in prison for manslaughter.
‘Doctor’ Linda Hazzard advocated extreme fasting as a cure for just about all ills. Despite little formal training and a lack of a medical degree, she was licensed by the state of Washington as a ‘fasting specialist’. She wrote two books and ran a sanatorium in Olalla near Seattle in the early 20th century. She wrote and self-published two books stating in Fasting for the Cure of Disease (1908) “Appetite is Craving; Hunger is Desire. Craving is never satisfied; but Desire is relieved when Want is supplied”. Her ‘cure’ involved extreme fasting over long periods with only asparagus soup. Locally the sanatorium was known as Starvation Heights.
The best-remembered of Hazzard’s patients are sisters Claire and Dorothea (known as Dora) Williamson, the orphaned daughters of a well-to-do English army officer. It is Claire and Dora’s story that forms the centre of this new play by Kate Barton.
Like many others they entered the sanatorium willingly where Hazzard subjected them to her starvation regime. In 1910 she was found guilty of manslaughter after the death of Claire Williamson and it is likely that she was responsible for the deaths of many more than she was actually prosecuted for.
Barton’s script is a well-crafted retelling of a story that few of us in the UK will be familiar with, a dark tale retold clearly and simply which brings home the horror of Hazzard’s practice. However, Barton doesn’t simply tell an historical tale but subtlety reminds us that many of Hazzard’s ideas about cleansing the body have modern echoes in the more extreme diets peddled by modern Linda Hazzard’s: clean eating, complex detox regimes and the value of spinach.
The set is simple but effective, in particular, the use of a set of hospital screens to both provide a sense of setting and the means to project images as part of the set, news headlines, and images of the real Linda. There is a minimum of furniture – a desk, two chairs and a large tin bath draped in sheets. It is enough to create a range of different settings as well as a sense of dread.
The costumes deserve particular mention as both fitting the period and the characters perfectly. Such attention to detail adds to the power of the play.
The directing by Kate Valentine suggests a light and deft touch, every move and action serving the telling of the story.
Caroline Lawrie gives us a very sharp Linda Hazzard, switching seamlessly from kind and concerned to manipulative and coercive. Kate Barton (Dora) and Stephanie James (Claire) are completely believable as sisters and Stephen Critchlow provides an excellent Jack Davis, a slightly stolid reporter who uncovers the story.
It doesn’t quite live up to the claims of being a dark psychological drama, for me that needs to have us clinging to our seats wondering what the end will be, whereas this is an historical tale with a known outcome. Such a label may also discourage some who would thoroughly enjoy it.
Overall it is well crafted tale told with skill, passion and tremendous attention to detail. It is a fascinating tale and a reminder of how easily what starts as relatively innocuous idea can become a dangerous obsession. Highly recommended