Published on The Times front page in 1999, the first item on the manifesto of the International Necronautical Society declared “that death is a type of space that we intend to map, enter, colonise and eventually inhabit.” Whose Blood, a robust little production staged in the old operating theatre of St Thomas’s hospital, seeks something similar; to busy itself in the liminal space of death, and have it stage an ethical drama where the question of how to lose a life becomes a question of living.
Two colonised bodies move to the necrotic metropole. Efua and Abakah are Ghanian immigrants to 19th century London, where working conditions are tough, and healthcare is underfunded and experimental. When Abakah falls ill due to the conditions of work at the tannery, Efua embarks on a perilous affair with a young surgeon, seducing him with “tales of places far away, both real and imagined”, partly with the intention of securing her partner’s life.
“The INS rejects the Enlightenment’s version of time: of time as progress, a line growing stronger and clearer as it runs from past to future. “
Whose Blood conveys the contingency of medical development, hung on the entrepreneurial young surgeon, (played by Mark Hawkins with glossy-eyed keenness) and the whim of governors, while failing to flesh the larger portrait of the imperatives of the age, of philanthropy, science, religion and politics. Institutions are reduced to briefly enumerated relationships; a laudanum-soaked lush played by John Gorick with a suitably blimpish bark stands in for medical bureaucratic authority. And while it does well to avoid the enlightenment-is-right trap of something like Nell Leyshon’s recent play for the Globe, Bedlam, and the cynical squabbling careerism of Blue/Orange, it too frequently falls back on technical dialogue for a sense of authenticity, and simplified relations of obligation and demand, blotting out the umwelt that might ground the action.
“That there is no beauty without death, it’s immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty.”
While asked to cover too much ground, Candice Onyeama as Efua adeptly mixes ordinary plainspeaking with the ecstatic contemplations of myths and ritual, equally as believable when breaking the fourth wall to warn us of the city as when calling on the River, The Peacemaker and the Protector of Children. Scriptwriter Alex Burger’s time in Africa gives him clarity in shifting mythic-frame, inculcating the past in the present, joining life and death in a shared horizon. Efua’s horror at the western models of death, where the dead are “what is left behind” after science’s failure, becomes the horror at the void of being without death, as Blanchot writes “without death everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness”, and there’s no doubt Whose Blood does its best work in this interface. Efua’s notions of death are lyrical and aestheticised, the plain African song mellow and haunting. Yet Charlie Folorunsho as Abakah carries suffering as a light grimace, like a kid trying to get off school. He fares much better in the scenes where his intensity can pitch outwards, demanding a talk man-to-man with the governor, delivering the silent force of a human betrayed.
“Our ultimate aim shall be the construction of a craft that will convey us into death.”
It the tight confines of the old operating theatre, with the gruesome gaslamp rigid like some perverted cross, we’re enjoindered to remember “the hundreds of dead whose blood lies in these floorboards”. It was ambitious and smart to turn this place of heritage butchery and touristical horror into a meditation on death. Yet as expansive as the meanings became, the sense of medical history was never quite palpable enough to deliver its ethical payoff. Despite one reference to disease travelling in the “bowels of the ships” the ontological threat of the immigrant body never became meaningful. The exilic experience was as unfocused as the social context was blurry. That said, Efua’s final refusal of the western model delivered a powerful message, that it is possible to say no to the life-cult; that the somethingness of nothingness might constitute a raft of meaning closed to the West, with all its assembled technical crafts racing away from death.