In this claustrophobic one-act drama, finally enjoying its first airing at the Finborough after forty years’ hibernating in a volume of Caryl Churchill’s collected short plays, there’s a line that jumps out at you. A young doctor says: “Let’s keep politics out of the hospital.”
If an argument needs to be made for the relevance of this potentially-dusty script, set during the 1962 Algerian War of Independence between French imperialists and indigenous insurgents, this quotation is surely Exhibit A. The political issue circling the piece is that of colonialism and its consequences, but at its core, The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution is a play about psychiatry, in which almost all of the characters – both French and Algerian – are trapped in defensive states of mind that isolate them from reality.
Not content with simply basing her script on Frantz Fanon’s seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, Churchill goes one step further and uses him for a main character, a doctor calmly treating a series of troubled patients whose maladies range from violent sociopathy to schizophrenia. As a dark-skinned French-Algerian with a university education, Fanon uncomfortably bridges the chasm between invaders and invaded.
If it sounds heavy, that’s because it is, inescapably so. There are surprisingly funny moments though, mostly involving white characters making racist claims about the inherent savageness of the Algerians, suddenly registering Fanon’s ethnicity, and awkwardly side-stepping the issue. These moments of broader comedy are exceedingly welcome, as it turns out; interesting as Churchill’s exploration of mental illness may be on the page or in the mind, the theatrical experience can be rather turgid. At times, the actors appear to be listening to each other’s monologues, a surefire way to make the audience feel that they are in a classroom as opposed to a theatre.
In truth, the forty-year absence of this play from the stage may signify the unstageability of its subject. Mental disorders are notoriously hard to depict with conviction. There is a considerable amount of head-touching, hair-ruffling, eyebrow-pinching and hand-wringing, with varying degrees of success. Among these nervous affectations, the performances of Miles Mitchell and Benjamin Cawley stand out for their lack of pretension. Elsewhere, moments feel preachy and line-readings sound artificial. The inexorable horror of the conflict, and the futility of the French characters’ desperation to retain control, are both realised in James Russell’s oppressive staging. The audience are almost on top of the characters, who are on top of each other, fighting for space to breathe. The whole thing feels frustrating, whether the frustration of the misunderstood FranÃ§oise, turned mad by the trauma of her father’s involvement in the torture rÃ©gime, or the frustration of the official who cannot restrain himself from being as violent towards his wife and children as he is towards his Algerian opponents.
Ultimately, it is this cloud of frustration which envelopes the play, making The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution overwhelmingly uncomfortable, if educational. Churchill’s social insights are clearly as keen here as they were to prove in her more famous later work, and as a historical document this play is definitely worthy of acknowledgement, but it is as a drama that this piece must be judged, and it would be hard to deny that the playwright’s skills have undoubtedly been put to more effective use elsewhere in her considerable legacy.