by Luisa De la Concha Montes
Turning to medical settings for drama is not a new endeavour. With long-running series like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, the plot of Super High Resolution might sound overdone in the first instance. However, contrary to TV blockbusters, Nathan Ellis’ new play utilises simplicity to defy expectations and tackle the elephant in the room: the collapse of the NHS.
The plot follows Anna (Jasmine Blackborow), a 31-year-old A&E doctor whose life is entirely swallowed by her work. The story naturally transitions between Anna’s life in the ward and her short-lived social interactions. We get to know her sister Becca (Leah Whitaker), her sister’s step-daughter Sammy (LJ Johnson), her line-manager Meredith (Catherine Cusak) and David (Lewis Shepherd), a charismatic and easy-going guy who gets romantically involved with Anna. Anna’s life is transformed when she first meets one of her patients, Janet (Hayley Carmichael). After a brief encounter, Anna notices that Janet is struggling with mental health issues but shortly after, she flees. Suddenly, Anna becomes witness to the real-life impacts of the shortages in the system. She feels guilty, impotent, and starts questioning her role and her capacity to change things. Through her stark character development, Jasmine Blackborow embodies doubt, not only verbally but also through her physical language, which becomes more and more frustrated and distant.
Another key development in Anna’s character is propelled by Sammy, her step-niece, who wants to become a doctor herself. In different conversations throughout the play we witness Anna juggling between what she expected her profession to be, and what it has actually become.
Her righteous side wants to convince Sammy that being a medic is a honourable career, yet her practical side knows that the choice comes with insurmountable sacrifices. By presenting the future and the present of the NHS through these two characters who enliven the stage naturally, we are provided with a truthful and human window into the day-to-day remorse and hopes of doctors and nurses in Britain.
The stage design, which was done by Andrew D. Edwards is simple, yet extremely functional. Several medical curtains hang from the ceiling, dividing the stage into separate sections. This also acts as a strong statement: the actors never leave the medical setting. Similarly, the sound design is minimal, serving as a narrative device that when used, it is quite evocative. For instance, in one of the final scenes, the sound and light are used to submerge the audience into the tension and pain of Anna’s experience. This scene is truly excruciating to watch, and the anxiety that it provokes demonstrates how close we all are to the topic at hand. Simply put, watching this after losing loved ones to the pandemic and in the middle of a mental health crisis hits differently. It is truly triggering, which granted, might not be everyone’s cup of tea – but the shock factor might definitely lead to important conversations afterwards.
By using Anna’s story to personalise the ins and outs of the NHS, the play builds an effective and multi-faceted argument that informs the viewer whilst emphasising the urgency of the issue. Anna’s character truly embodies the love-hate relationship that doctors have with their career, but it also demonstrates that the ‘hate’ could be subdued if the system worked. The only thing missing is more factual statements. Perhaps if the script included some numbers on funding cuts, or even if it mentioned the amount of doctors that die to suicide in Britain (which is a fact included in the programme but not in the script), Anna’s story would be directly embedded in the national crisis.
How can theatre tackle a topic that is so urgently overwhelming without falling into self-indulgence or desensitisation? How can it be done without falling into overused medical tropes? And finally, how do we envision hope for the NHS within the current system? Through superb acting and congruent character development, Super High Resolution answers these questions and turns the issue inwards, anxiously revealing that the story does not stop when we leave Soho Theatre. It becomes a looming reminder, which will come back again with every GP appointment or hospital visit.
Super High Resolution runs through 3 December.
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