While images of Covid wards may be familiar to many of us from news reports, far fewer people know what a Covid ward sounds like, according to sound designer Farokh Soltani. The incessant bleeping of alarms, the metallic rasps of ventilators, the rustling of hospital staff donning and doffing PPE. Under the Mask immerses audience members in this world through binaural sound, much of which was recorded in hospital at the height of the pandemic by the play’s writer and junior doctor, Shaan Sahota.
We hear through the ears of Jaskaran who, like hundreds of final-year medical students in 2020, was allowed to qualify early to help staff hospitals during the pandemic. She is thrown in at the deep end, assigned to work in intensive care on a covid ward before she even knows where to find scrubs. The challenges a junior doctor might expect to face are compounded a hundredfold by the pandemic, which is characterised as unpredictable and overwhelming.
Patients who seemed only to have mild symptoms are rushed into intensive care. None of them come out alive. The care the doctors and nurses are offering is merely palliative, making Jaskaran feel helpless. Her ideas of what it would be like to be a doctor are far from the reality. The sounds of ventilators and coughing haunt her dreams, while a repeated piano refrain and the stark lighting of Ashley Bale’s design suggest the monotony of Jaskaran’s waking nightmare.
Yet, although there is little time for sentimentality on the ward, pockets of compassion and comfort shine out. A supportive registrar provides direction for the team at the hospital during the crisis and models for Jaskaran a possible way through. A doctor, who tells Jaskaran that she needs to toughen up, talks to her patients as she certifies their deaths.
The main focus of the radio play is Jaskaran, with actor Aysha Kala capturing her mixture of naivety and steeliness, which provides a focused lens to tell part of a larger story. The character of Jaskaran’s father also poignantly communicates the pressure that coronavirus put on the relationships of medical staff with their own loved ones. He is hurt and confused when Jaskaran refuses to eat with him and her mum, hug them or even tell them about her day. As well as fear that she might infect her parents, Jaskaran seems to find their pride in her stifling on top of everything else; as she tells them, her prize-winning medical degree does not help when she’s trying to prone a Covid patient.
Although I was initially hesitant about watching a play that reflects so directly on coronavirus when the pandemic is far from over, I found Jaskaran’s story gripping to listen to. While some of parts of the story might seem familiar, the character of Jaskaran and her way of navigating the situation through her Sikh faith, feel fresh. (On top of all the challenges of the pandemic, Jaskaran has to contend with casual racism at work, from patients asking for a white doctor to a colleague persistently calling her Karen.) Sahota’s writing avoids false resolution, which feels appropriate.
The staged radio play hybrid that director Sita Thomas adopts for Under the Mask is also very effective. There is something in the fabric of theatre that allows for collective processing, which I did not know that I needed till I saw this play. Audience members listen to Soltani’s immersive sound design through their own sets of headphones on chairs scattered across the stage. This allows for a surprisingly intimate experience that is, at the same time, shared by people across space.
‘Know that I am giving you a hug in my heart’, Jaskaran’s dad says in one of the most moving lines of the play. Under the Mask reaches out to its audience like a hand proffered in the dark.
Under the Mask ran at Oxford Playhouse from 12-15 July. It runs at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, from 21-25 July. More info here.