Back in April, part of Theatre Royal Stratford East’s response to the pandemic was to create a new type of project. They put out a call to key workers in the local community to share their stories via a video wall. Out of some of these writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Nadia Fall have created a series of imagined monologues which have been filmed as No Masks.
Linda is a nurse, Anuja a junior doctor, Vincent a care home employee and Noel a community police officer who tell us how their jobs change and evolve as the pandemic spreads, resources become scarce and events start to spiral out of control. Completing the cast of characters is elderly Annie, the type of person that the other four may have found themselves caring for. Rather than play each story through separately,
Fall intercuts the five different, yet in some ways very similar stories. Thus, we see the increasing sense of frustration and despair of the quintet as they either become ill themselves or try and cope with those that are. The whole is punctuated by some recent famous sound clips from the last few months of politicians and experts making statements about the virus. Gradually death touches all directly or indirectly and the general feeling of the piece is decidedly (but rightfully) sombre.
There are strong performances all round and there is a consistency of feel in the delivery even though, presumably, the actors worked at each section individually. What comes across clearly is as sense of controlled anger as the characters try to state their cases dispassionately but are only just able to do so without becoming emotional. I was particularly struck by Eamonn Walker’s performance.
His character, Vincent, catches the virus and slips into a three week coma; when he emerges from this personal tragedy has overtaken him and it is clear that he is only marginally recovered himself. Russell Tovey’s Noel has only become a policeman by default, yet he finds himself pitched into a world which no training could have prepared him for. Both Anya Chalotra’s Anjua and Lorraine Ashbourne’s Linda have received some training but fear getting sick themselves and spreading the virus to their loved ones. They are also frustrated by the lack of PPE; the latter is particularly horrified to hear that masks are to be ditched not for any medical reason but simply because they are running out.
This aspect references the title, of course, but I felt it was also meant to allude to the fact that characters confide in the audience directly with no barriers between them. What we are told is the truth of the situation in contrast to the politicians’ gloss that we can hear going on in the background. The fact that the dialogue is drawn from real testimony makes everything all too real. This is particularly true of the standout performance from Anna Calder-Marshall as Annie who in younger days protested at Greenham Common and clearly feels keenly the position of virtual neglect that she finds herself in. She is particularly angry about what has happened and despises her own status as a victim. The closing moments of the play foreground her character and produce an almost unbearably poignant ending.
No Masks is a thoroughly sobering piece of work shot in some locations I could actually recognise (around the east end of London) and which will give any viewer pause for thought. One can only hope that the play is on the watch list of the country’s decision makers – and if it isn’t, it should be.