Fringe Online 2020
Written and directed by Nina Raine, designed by Lizzie Clachan, lit by Roy Fisher, Sound by Fergus O’Hare, Video Dick Straker, associate and Movement Director Jane Gibson, Assistant Director Hannah Banister. Screened in-house with an unnamed Guardian team. Till April 26th.
Hampstead Theatre led the charge with online free viewings of past productions during the lockdown: now it’s extended to a fifth.
We’re back in Nina Raine’s Tiger Country, the name given by testosterone-driven surgeon Mark to newbie Emily from Brighton in this magnificent NHS drama. Being a woman Emily can’t possibly be up to a frantic London A&E. You’re alone when you make an incision. ‘You stick a knife in close to an artery… then you’re in tiger country. You’re a medic not a surgeon.’
It’s Ruth Everett’s Emily and Indira Varma’s Registrar Vashti whose opposite journeys we follow in a cat’s cradle of relationships, emergencies and a few deadly calms. Emily’s moved to be close to boyfriend orthopaedics junior ‘bone monkey’ James, Luke Thompson’s portrayal of a warm hearthrob, ‘handsome Ransom’ as Mark calls him to helpfully alert Emily.
Austerity was biting in the play’s first version in January 2011, and literally so when in its December 2014 rewrite the cast slimmed from 15 to 11 with three supernumeraries, Raine adding the play can work with 10. Directing as well as writing her play, Raine knows every contingency both kinds of theatre throw up; this work sings them in a terrible benediction.
In every pore there’s a reference to shortages. We knew this then, we sure as hell know it now. It’s a polemical play too but makes its case by sheer example. Upon example. Alarms screaming means you don’t need to shout. There’s NHS politics too.
Sexism is what all NHS women encounter, sometimes as Vashti points out in reverse sexism from surly lazy nurses like Comfort, and as Wummi Mosaku’s Rebecca, an FY2 like Emily reveals. Being of colour she’s continually taken for a nurse and male nurses mistakenly called doctor. Rebecca introduces a different kind of conflict too.
Everett’s character is more than idealistic, as the otherwise most sympathetic character John (Alistair Mackenzie) points out. Having already told her she must get used to losing a patient, he’s impressed at her tenacity, overruling others to save a woman. ‘You went with a hunch and you were right… You’re good. You listen and you look. And you ask them the right questions.’ He also ensures she answers the phone to take credit. It’s one of the few heartwarming moments.
Even seraphic John loses sympathy for a beat in Emily’s Gethsemene moment, when towards the end a 24-year-old girl’s brought in with a stopped heart and the anaesthetist pronounces over Emily’s head. John’s neck lump – which from the start he discusses with Junior Consultant Brian – has just threatened his own mortality as he later tells Emily. Caring too much can kill, as the current crisis underlines.
It’s Emily’s baptism of refining fire that compels, with Everett the one returning member of the 2011 cast. James when they’re intimate is the one who also tells her she’s listening with her gut ‘all covered by these nerves.. left over from the old primitive nervous system.. it’s where you feel happy and where you feel sad.’
But James hardened already by overwork isn’t prepared to help when Emily desperately needs someone to operate on a woman shuttled between medical and surgery till there’s a scan. Politics. James’ actions threaten to lose Emily but exposes the pressures. ‘It’s the Soviet Union. There isn’t enough NHS. There isn’t enough me.’ He opts to join his consultant for a drink, at least there’ll be promotion.
Antagonist, Nick Hendrix’s Mark links them all: Mark refuses to take women seriously especially Registrar Vashti, who hauls him up for disobeying her, screwing up a penis insertion and being a bad stitcher. Hendrix radiates Mark’s ballsy language like a blow-torch. Mark’s neatly sent up by Raine when Vashti commands him in an otherwise all-female team to merely ‘swab’ and enlarge a cut as she removes a man’s ‘wasted testicle’. But Mark too is suddenly impelled to make a redemptive journey.
Not because of Vashti, whose bullying he complains of and Raine’s writing here is commanding. ‘It’s called a hierarchy’ and Vashti’s run-in differs from men in that gendered stereotypes abhor her in such a role. Antagonising incompetent or insolent men won’t help, as junior consultant Brian (Shaun Parkes), her only friend warns her – not just because as she tells him ‘you want to fuck me.’ Her dilemma’s brilliantly highlighted when Brian warns Vashti that to go over the head of a negligent consultant on her interview panel to save a relative’s life will cost her a longed-for consultancy.
Like Emily Vashti has another wrenching decision to make, to tell some news and it measures her humanity. Varma’s command goes from hard-edged, cynical RP through consolatory Hindi with her relative Bindu (one of Soad Farress’s two roles, the other being theatre sister Lakshmi) through to what poet James Kirkup termed ‘a correct compassion’, observing heart-surgery in the 1950s.
Act One hurtles past with such introductions and overlaps it was good to have a text handy. And – dark confession – even re-traverse a dense patch. The short second act before the interval opens up a taking stock. The third (Act Two in transmission after the interval) slowly accelerates now-exposed plot-lines past harrowing conclusions to where John tells Emily: ‘You think you can’t do the job. But we have to do the job.’
There’s terrific support from Jenny Galloway as senior nurse Olga and particularly Gillian, the patient Emily fights to have admitted to surgery. She has to desist; Gillian finds her out straying distractedly from her ward. ‘You’ve got cobwebs on your face’ she pronounces with oblique wisdom, repeating ‘I won’t forget about you.’ Maxwell Hutcheson contrasts the warm Geoffrey Mercer, gravely ill TV doctor with abrupt Mr Leffe and an anaesthetist who’s seen it all. Alexine Lafaber, Carolin Ott and Rose Riley as supernumeraries complete the cast.
As Emily tells James: ‘You go into this job because you care. To stay in it, you have to stop.’ Like John’s experiences of a psychic she sees the patient on the ceiling in the corner of her eye, feels ‘dirtied’ by the patient entering her body, damaging herself giving frantic CPR cracking a patient’s rib. Tricia Kelly’s brief senior nurse/registrar roles culminate in the uncanny, sympathetic Mrs Bracken, the one Emily rescues. She tells John: ‘You’re not well. I know you’re only young, but you look tired to death.’ Having heeded another such person he doesn’t ignore her. Anyone who’s lived around consultants or medics will tell you spooky a place hospital is. It’s that edge that makes Raine’s drama so outstanding. No TV drama – except fleetingly The Green Wing – apprehends this.
This of all plays streaming is the one to see. It offers no comfort at all, except in its rapture of distress, it tells us more truthfully then any play has, the heroism that hardens, the sacrifice that endures.