“Let’s leave politics out of the hospital”
Unperformed since it was written in 1972, it has fallen to Urgent Theatre company to make the case for Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution in this limited run production at the Finborough Theatre, directed by James Russell. And concerned as it is with the ethics of torture and how it impacts on those that carry it out, as well as its direct results, it still carries a currency with modern audiences despite being set in an Algeria still fighting for independence from its colonial power France.
Churchill used the work of noted psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, namely The Wretched of the Earth, to come up not only with a script that cycles through a number of agents in a psychiatric unit – a civil servant and his distressed family, a sleepless soldier, a snide colleague, a group of patients – but also utilising Fanon himself as a central figure, the doctor to whom they all look to cure their various woes. But it is clear that serious damage has been done, violence perpetrated – whether physical, emotional or cultural – and justified in the name of various causes.
Russell’s production is somewhat hamstrung by having to perch onto the set of another show as is the way with the limited runs at the Finborough and consequently has little room to use in the already intimate space of this theatre. So scenes play out in a rather static manner, tiringly so as they are revisited, and the one really potentially interesting innovation – to have the one true victim of torture represented by a lifesize puppet – is never really exploited to its full potential.
Instead, he relies on the intriguing qualities of his cast, several of whom deliver strong performances. Ruth Lass’ fussing mother is devastatingly blinkered as along with her husband played by Kenneth Price, she struggles to deal with their near-catatonic daughter Françoise – their familial relationship a microcosm of the corrupting delusions of the colonial mindset; Benjamin Cawley’s patient has a highly affecting monologue about the vicious cycle of violence freedom fighters get stuck into; and Simon Yadoo is compelling as the policeman who is struggling to reconcile the requirements of his job with his daily life.
The repetition of several of the key arguments to diminishing returns means that the play does feel a little indulgent at this running time and not all of the cast have quite the requisite gravitas to pull off their characters, but there is no doubting the timelessness of much of what is argued here, especially in the light of current conflicts. And it is also fascinating to be able to see an early work from a playwright as revered as Churchill for the first time, to see her work in development.