by Laura Kressly
Everyday life isn’t often a particularly generative setting for compelling storytelling, but the many hospital dramas out there show that medicine is an exception. Though they aren’t part of most people’s daily routines, they are for the nurses who work in them. Long, exhausting shifts are dictated by the rhythms of their rounds, but these are punctuated by literal life-or-death crises. Amidst the moments of high drama, there are series of small, precise actions that keep patients safe and looked after. It’s in these little moments that this physical theatre collage excels.
Though as much as the high drama punctuates this show, it’s the routines of care that are translated into choreography where much of the power of this piece lies. Of course, nurses are heroes when they perform CPR on someone who would otherwise die, or persuade a young cancer patient to lie still during a painful and scary procedure. But it’s also in the corners of the bedsheets, checking vitals, handling sick bowls, and answering patients’ worried questions. These more mundane aspects of their jobs are here writ large through ensemble movement sequences punctuating the show’s scenelets, serving as a reminder that in nursing the small gestures are no less important than the rest of their responsibilities.
The ensemble (Tina Chiang, Etta Fusi, Rina Fatania, Keziah Joseph, Clive Mendus and Janet Etuk) multi-role across dozens of characters whose work is loosely guided by the spirit of Florence Nightingale. There’s some initial exposition of a young woman who desperately wants to be a nurse trying to prove her experience, but ends up being instructed by one older and wise than her. The different points she raises provide thematic sections of the production, giving it some dramaturgical direction, but these two characters rarely appear. There isn’t a linear plot or story – this is very much a collage of experiences – it is again in the small, individual moments between a sick person and their nurse where this piece has its emotional power.
And yet, there’s a niggling possibility that the script leans too much on audience sentimentality and good will, particularly given the government’s treatment of the NHS during the pandemic and empty displays of gratitude. This is further emphasised by the sheer number of characters we meet and the themes that steer each section of the show, as within each section similar moments play out in hospitals across the nation. Since a theatre audience will probably be inclined to politically align with nursing and the NHS anyway, there doesn’t seem to be a need to seek their sympathy so hard, even though we readily give it. The hints of the characters we see feel unsatisfying in their smallness, unlike how this smallness manifests in movement. But this could be due to a propensity towards text-based, linear storylines. Regardless of the reason, I want to learn more about the characters that flit in and out of these wards.
Visually, the show is stunning and efficiently designed. White curtains partition the space and act as backdrops to photo and video projections, and the blankness sets off the movement beautifully, but there’s still plenty of space to hold the capaciousness that is this vast collection of tiny acts of care. It also is a needed reminder that making a difference can be as big as saving someone’s life or tucking a bedsheet corner under a mattress.
The Language of Kindness runs through 12 June.
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