Monday, 1 April 2013

Theatre review: The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution

Caryl Churchill's The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution, based on Dr Franz Fanon's observations of the 1950s Algerian revolution, dates from 1972 but had never been performed before the Finborough added it to its Sunday-Tuesday repertory slot. The after-effects of torture are the play's focus, not just on the direct victims - indeed the only character actually to have been tortured is entirely silent, and played here by a disconcerting puppet - but on everyone who's come into any kind of contact with the violence. We're in a mental hospital during the uprising the colonial French resolutely refuse to call a war, and its resources are being stretched to breaking point by the influx of patients whom Fanon (Miles Mitchell) observes, mostly silently and without getting directly involved.

So a lengthy opening scene introduces us to a civil servant (Kenneth Price) and his wife (Ruth Lass) whose formerly saintly teenage daughter Francoise (Ruth Pickett) has suddenly started exhibiting schizophrenic tendencies. Her parents' main response to her illness seems to be irritation at the inconvenience, but as their story is told it becomes clear they're expecting her to be unaffected by some pretty horrific truths her father's work has been bringing home with him. We also meet Patient A (Benjamin Cawley,) a bomber who's had a delayed reaction to the consequences of his actions, but remains resolute that he'll continue them when he gets out; and Patient C (Tim Pritchett,) a white Algerian obsessively paranoid that nobody will believe he's on his black countrymen's side. A policeman (Simon Yadoo) wants help because his day-job torturing suspects is turning him violent with his family. And a white doctor (Will Rastall) assures Fanon he's an exception to the rule that black Africans have primitive brains, before pondering taking a job "supervising" tortures so the suspects don't die too soon.

It's certainly an important, disturbing, and still current subject matter, but Churchill's play is a very mixed affair. Patient A's imagined conversation with his wife is intense, and grippingly performed by Cawley in an exhausted monotone. But the trouble with a character who, like Patient C, is single-mindedly fixated on a single issue, is that the endless repetition of the same questions about whether he's seen as a coward is frustrating to watch in the initial scene, let alone when Churchill brings him back later. Indeed most of the plotlines have a particular sharp point to make, that gets made strongly at first then repeated less interestingly. There's a chilling truth to The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution's observations on how people can numb themselves to the realities of horror all around them, even to the point, like Francoise's parents, of no longer understanding how someone else could be affected by it. But the way the play presents them doesn't quite grab the interest, and it's possible to see how it could take 40 years to get staged.

The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution by Caryl Churchill, inspired by Les Damnes de la Terre by Frantz Fanton, is booking in repertory until the 16th of April at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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