Twenty years a nurse, Watson’s book is about the blood and the shit of being a nurse, but also about the unexpected miracles, the love, and the kindness.
In a baby’s fragile heartbeat Christie finds the poetry. “We run towards life,” she says of a baby’s heart scan. In the galloping and whooshing heartbeat of a newborn she hears that survival is instinctive, “at birth perhaps more than ever—that will of a new-born, of a species, of survival.”
But how on earth would you be able to turn those ideas into theatre? That’s exactly what Sasha Milavic Davies thought when three years ago former Complicite producer Judith Dimant handed her a copy of the book with the suggestion that it should be transposed to the stage.
“I loved the book, but I had absolutely no idea how you might stage it,” recalls Milavic Davies. But then she and co-director, James Yeatman, had worked with Simon McBurney and Complicite on several apparently impossible to stage books, including a blockbuster version of The Master and Margarita.
It was a question of finding the right theatrical language. A workshop at the Barbican in which 10 people spent a week “tearing the book apart” resulted in the thunderbolt realisation that the most apt form was movement and dance. The show, an ensemble piece, which opens at Shoreditch Town Hall this week (June 3) is a dance-theatre show on which over 30 people have worked at various times over the last three years in a devising process.
The company of The Language of Kindness. Production images by Ali Wright.
“I know, some of the actors’ response was the same, they were surprised to find themselves in a dance-theatre piece,” says Yeatman when he spots my incredulity on Zoom that Christie’s book, which I love and admire, might be translated into dance. But Yeatman is persuasive, pointing to the fact that “a lot of fiction and art is made about hospitals and what goes on inside of them.” Most notably hugely successful TV series such as Holby City and Casualty. The hospital drama is to UK TV what legal dramas are to the Americans.
Many years ago I read an article suggesting that because most people’s expectation of what a hospital looked like was so shaped by representations on TV that architects designing real life hospitals looked to TV for inspiration.
That story may or may not be apocryphal, but Yeatman says that because theatre clearly can’t compete with TV in representations of reality and the established iconography of hospital dramas, it makes sense to look to something amplified like dance.
“There is this real sense when reading the book that Watson has escaped from the hospital to tell us about this crazy world so it makes sense to offer something heightened. Dance is empathetic and indefinable, and it has a poetry about it that the book also has.”
When Milavic Davies and Yeatman start explaining it starts to make total sense. The show begins with a birth which is staged as a big pop opening number by an international diva, while a section about nurses on a neo-natal unit caring unflaggingly for babies in incubation units becomes like a parody of a Swan Lake ballet corps. A sequence with a nurse lifting a patient and a patient in turn lifting the nurse has echoes of Pina Bausch’s use of repetitive movement. Milavic Davies explains that it echoes the thesis of Watson’s book “that we have to look after each other.”
Both Milavic Davies and Yeatman were worried that the production, delayed by Covid and rehearsed within strict social distancing rules, might have missed its moment.
“Covid totally changed everything,” says Milavic Davies.
“One of the messages of the book is how under-appreciated nurses are, and suddenly Covid meant that we were clapping them weekly on our doorstep,” says Yeatman. But that doesn’t mean that the message is no longer relevant. Only the other week the nurse who watched over Boris Johnson when he had Covid resigned, citing lack of appreciation and lack of pay. After all that has happened in the last year appreciation is till lacking for the work that nurses do and the role they play in society.
“The gap they have to fill is becoming so large,” says Milavic Davies, pointing out that many who end up in hospital, particularly the elderly, do not need curing of physical ailments but of loneliness and broken hearts.
The company in rehearsal. Photo by Sarah Ainslie.
Watson’s book was written long before anyone had ever heard of Covid and neither co-director wanted to impose it on the book
“It’s not in the book and it’s not our story to tell,” says Yeatman. But both think that everything that has happened during the last year makes Watson’s book even more germane.
Milavic Davies says that the ultimate paradox is that she and Yeatman are attempting to stage a show about caring and empathy “when nobody can actually touch each other.” No actor can be near another unless they are wearing a mask. “It’s rather lucky we’re doing a show about nurses, because it means that mask-wearing doesn’t look strange.” Yeatman nods.
“We never talk about Covid in the piece because in the end we decided that we had to let the book be the book, but you could say that the whole form of the show is a Covid-infected form because no actor goes within two metres of another actor unless they are wearing a mask.”
You can watch The Language Of Kindness at Shoreditch Town Hall from Thu 3 - Sat 12 June. Tickets can be found here.