Edinburgh Fringe 2016
A dramatic duologue between two Nurses battling self doubt and high pressure workplace challenges in today’s NHS.
The poise of Emelia Lovsey lifted this performance and brought a tender and painful clarity to the dehumanising aspects of a job that is all about humanity, reminding my companion and I of a fringe performance called White Man’s Burden, an experimental performance piece exploring how unkind people might be to someone if they just stood there, impassively, allowing the audience to cut their clothes off, draw on them, shout at them and so on.
How much could we watch someone suffer? There might be horizontal violence played out in Nursing as the management and politicians watch through a mirror impassively as nurses work harder and harder for less and less facing ever sharper disciplinary action if mistakes are made, even when those mistakes are clearly down to superhuman expectations.
The two actresses were well cast, bringing the qualities of vulnerability and strength to their characters but reminding me of the Phoebe Traquair art piece currently in the Scottish Collection in Edinburgh. The younger newly qualified Nurse starting with hope and enthusiasm but the stresses and dark aspects of the job starting to pull at her faith and confidence, her hair unravelling and her clean scrubs being sullied by each incident of loss and frustration. Her sanity starts to unravel with the overwhelming demands placed on her, as on all frontline NHS staff, in a culture of impossibly high expectation yet impossibly low resources. We see her reflect on why she came into nursing, reliving the trauma of having not been there for her sister as a child, now finding herself once again in situations where she feels out of her depth, unable to be there fully for her patients.
The more experienced Nurse (Stephanie Silver) is battle weary and disillusioned. Smoking heavily she darkly tells us that Nurses aren’t saints, they get impatient, and lose their patience, with the patients – not actually losing them she laughs bitterly, gallows humour the only form
of stress release available here in this high pressured and gritty work place. Other coping mechanisms have to wait until the shift is ended, getting drunk seems a feature with NHS staff. Through her eyes we see the regrets of her youth, we see her bemused and perhaps bitterly nostalgic at the fragility of someone new to this work and we see a desolation of self, of hope, of spiritual or religious faith. Hunched shoulders and eyes heavy with hidden sorrow she tells us of the horror of seeing a mother huddling her blue and lifeless baby to her, of standing in a funeral and seeing the nightmare in their eyes. Of how when finally away from this relentless human misery she felt free and happy. A comment on the script here that feels often defeatist and angry, it may be useful to bring in more balancing experiences of Nursing to contrast more eloquently the dissolution of optimism. It would have been visually powerful to add to the narrative through physical mime illustrating the relentless physicality of the work.
While we might assume that it is Nursing that has beaten these two women down in different ways, it’s important to acknowledge that its not the work itself that creates this disillusionment, this ‘tiredness’ that leads to anger and irritability and maybe even compassion fatigue? It’s not the experiences of sickness and death. It isn’t even working hard with a break and on your feet for hours on end. What cuts deepest is the feeling of never being good enough, fast enough, skilled enough. For not being able to be there for people in their darkest time, instead having to ‘be’ with machines, with paperwork, with tasks….too busy to hold a hand and look into the eyes of the grieving and just sit with them. A female heavy workforce will inevitably be coloured by the female tendency to take too much responsibility for what is not theirs, trying to be a ‘good girl’ uncomplaining and angelic, not acknowledge that the work demands are unacceptable. Or perhaps they do acknowledge it, they are just too tired out to do anything about it.
The conclusion of this dramatic narrative is shocking and moving. We are saddened and share the burden of responsibility and guilt that healthcare workers carry. It’s at this moment we see Silver finally inhabit her character’s skin more fully, allowing the fury, the frustration and the sense of injustice rise up and roar loudly. This fiery energy, juxtaposes beautifully with Lovsey’s poised martyr like stillness, two sides of an archetype, shedding away the dialogue and revealing the qualities needed to instigate change in the current political climate.