Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 19 December 2014

Tiger Country

Hampstead Theatre ⋄ 8th December 2014 - 17th January 2015

A matter of life and death.

Tim Bano

Holby City, Casualty, Scrubs, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, House, Doctors, 24 Hours in A&E, Green Wing, Diagnosis Murder, Dr Quinn Medicine Woman: what is it about hospitals that keeps them eternally on our screens?

This surfeit means we think we know what goes on behind the flimsy curtains, or in the doctors’ mess; it certainly means we’re inured against all the dramatic clichés that hospital drama can throw our way. And those clichés come in abundance in Nina Raine’s play. But just because we’ve seen their sort before doesn’t mean they hit any less hard, and when she gets going, when she gives a bit of room for emotion and a monologue, well it’s not Raine – it’s a deluge, a flood, a hurricane. These tempests come more frequently in the superior second half, which reaches a climax with two traumas being treated simultaneously on stage. Focus alternates between Emily (Ruth Everett) trying to resuscitate a young girl and Mark (Nick Hendrix) patching up a middle aged man.

Raine and the crew are packing so much into this: there’s the colours – sky blue scrubs, marbled blue lino floors, thin stems of chrome that hold all this hospital equipment together – as well as the projections and inter-scene dances accompanied by pumping music (which work better when they aren’t just dancing, when there’s a bit of hospital action too). And thematically Raine tries to cover it all: race, gender, ability, morality and mortality.

Simultaneous narratives are juggled in lots of quick scenes, so that the play seems like a series of vignettes at first. All the usual medical storylines crop up: Vashti (Indira Varma), finding it hard to be a woman in a man’s world; young doctor James (Luke Thompson) struggling to balance his professional life with being in a relationship; the topsy turviness of when a doctor, John (Alastair Mackenzie), himself becomes unwell. Varma nails the uptight, insecure registrar Vashti. Her bitter persona crumbles beautifully by the end, while Mackenzie’s world-weary John begs to be pitied.

I’m pretty squeamish, so the operation on some guy’s testicle – complete with projections on the stage walls of thick streams of blood – had me seriously squirming, as did the draining of an old man’s chest fluid via a needle stuck into his back. This is a big part of why hospitals creep me out: everyone has really sharp shards of metal sticking into manmade holes in their bodies.

The medical staff mention the cost of equipment a few times, and James delivers a brilliant, desperate rant about being overworked, but the play isn’t really about the NHS or about the politics of medicine. It’s about the fact that doctors are humans who have to pretend not to be.

It’s about the profession: how can doctors ever gain practical experience when their patient could die from just a prod in the wrong place? How can any medical practitioners stay sane when we expect them not only to be beyond reproach but moral and responsible too? In which we expect every single doctor to be the gold standard?

Raine embeds these little moments of hinting at some kind of higher authority. Vashti tells of how her grandfather used to read tea leaves, and a couple of doctors jokily read horoscopes in the mess. Characters act on hunches and consult clairvoyants. It’s bullshit of course – medicine works and horoscopes don’t – but it’s interesting to see the humanness of these highly practical, highly rational people turning to inexplicable forces for help.

As hospitals do every single day, every hour even, Tiger Country hits the highs and the low lows of, well, basically just of living. Surgeons bicker over the choice of music in the OR and I laugh, and then some 24 year old girl just has a heart attack and dies for no reason and it’s devastating.

Spend half an hour in a hospital where this is all real, or spend a couple of hours in a theatre where it’s not. Either way, it’s pretty easy to figure out what it is about the setting that makes it so endlessly fascinating: it is universal. Who hasn’t spent time in a hospital? From our own births to witnessing the final breaths of some loved one, a hospital contains everything. It’s life, and more – so much more – it’s death.

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Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Tiger Country Show Info


Directed by Nina Raine

Written by Nina Raine

Cast includes Indira Varma, Luke Thompson, Alastair Mackenzie, Ruth Everett, Souad Faress, Jenny Galloway, Nick Hendrix, Maxwell Hutcheon, Tricia Kelly, Wunmi Mosaku, Shaun Parkes

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