As part of a run of mercilessly political theatre at the Royal Court (including austerity drama Hope and climate change undrama 2071) Who Cares cuts open the NHS to provide a cross-section of views from within the world’s fifth largest employer. Playwright Michael Wynne has spent upwards of a year canvassing politicians, researchers, GPs, nurses and medical porters for their experiences of the NHS. He’s stitched their words verbatim into a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of a play – heavy-handed in its approach to delicate subject matter.
The audience shuffle from scene to scene in small groups. After lurking in an uncannily realistic hospital waiting room, we’re taken upstairs to see two surgeons conducting a symbolic reorganisation of the NHS. They take apart an anatomical model of the chest, then hastily crams all the bits in at random as they are reshuffled to another position. It’s almost a strong image, playing on a former NHS chief executive’s comment that “in Whitehall, it’s described as the biggest train set.”
But it also feels as clunky as the plastic organs, and doesn’t get us any closer to imagining the vast and complex interlocking administrative systems that make up the NHS – or how much impact politicians can actually make on them.
Vicky Featherstone has explained that the pre-election timing is no coincidence. But it’s not a performance that really engages with politics – instead it slides from classism among medics, to negligence by nurses, to a heavily stated series of points about the public’s use of the NHS.
This last aspect rings through Wynne’s text, and is echoed by Andrew D. Edwards heavily detailed set design. Hanging luggage tags give the cost of missed GPs appointments, untaken medicine, unhealthy lifestyle choices – I felt a surge of guilt for the cost of being ill. But it’s an unproductive guilt. We hear a grey-haired doctor’s narrative of embarking on a Scottish country walk, even after as his ruptured appendix disintegrated and infected his bloodstream. His terror of being a hypochondriac ended up costing the NHS five days in hospital.
Other stories are similarly telling. We’re offered cups of tea by a long-serving nurse who reminisces about decades in service. Then tells us in agonising detail about the necrosis that set into her breasts after local NHS cuts deprived her of the nursing she herself needed. But it doesn’t feel like the production has earned these moments.
The direction has been split three ways (between Debbie Hannan, Lucy Morrison and Hamish Pirie) and it shows – an efficient triage that falls down when it comes to producing emotive, rather than purely practical, results.
As the medics waltz in an awkward, school-hallish finale, it’s hard not to wish the production had made some more challenging aesthetic decisions, rather than pinning all its hopes to the journalistic impact of honest testimonies.
It would be unfair to hold Alecky Blythe up as a sainted midwife of verbatim deliveries, but we’re certainly missing London Road’s creative flair and delicacy here. Verbatim theatre should have the uncanny power of seeing something real, in an artificial setting: like white walls screening Anya Gallaccio’s rotting apple tree or Tracy Emin’s bed. But here several actors visibly struggle to fit themselves into someone else’s speech patterns. They’re not helped by the performance’s structure of precisely timed bits of music, which are usually too short or too long for the scenes. Or by ushers clipping their final lines with a brisk “If you’d like to follow me please.”
I learned a lot from the performance: about the Stafford General Hospital failings, and protests. About the economics of the NHS. About how it was founded to free us from fear. But being passed through the bowels of the Royal Court doesn’t feel like the best way to digest what’s essentially a long-form qualitative investigation, as much as a play. Its lurches into artistry are only surface decoration for a body of work that’s in deadly earnest.