I couldn’t think of a play more apt to raise awareness of the health crisis we now find ourselves in. Tiger Country is a blunt and beautiful portrayal of the real lives and work of doctors and nurses in an NHS London hospital. We watch spellbound as stereotypical personalities (the new one, the bitter one, the quiet one, the arrogant one…) are pressured to breaking point by the system and in doing so reveal their complex characters lying underneath.
We follow Emily (brilliantly played by Ruth Everett), a junior doctor new to the A&E department, as she sacrifices her all for the job, mental health included. Her love for treating, caring and looking after patients is crushed to a pulp as she battles the reality of lack of people, equipment and drive.
On the other side we see Vashti (a wonderful Indira Varma), an ice-cold senior doctor, turned to stone by the work, treating her juniors appallingly. She begins to lose a handle on her job when her aunt becomes ill and she sees the failings of the hospital from the outside. Nina Raine shows us that neither of them can leave their office behind, they carry around the physical pain of the trauma on a daily basis. I think one line stands out from the rest: Emily questions another Doctor: “Do you think the job makes us sick?”
“Do you think the job makes us sick?”
Having watched Nina Raine’s Consent at the National Theatre, I had my hopes up for this play and I was not disappointed. The pragmatic nature and poise of the conversations, sprinkled with casual office humour, transported us away from the stage and into Raine’s palm in the middle of an operating theatre. The dialogue was enhanced by the set (Lizzie Clachan) of blue, harsh whites and a constant background beeping. We are exposed to many technical procedures, but as an overall production, it was very accessible, though shocking. This play tackled the overwhelming beast of NHS problems in the simplest and most effective way: by closing in. By getting out the microscope and showing us that NHS workers are just like us.
The point which really struck me was the idea that this is their everyday work. This is their office. This was demonstrated with one very effective scene in the operating theatre. They are laughing, talking about their plans for later, listening to the radio but the only difference to your general office is that there is an unconscious man on the table, “slabs of meat”. Throughout, Raine demonstrates the desperate and the routine nature of the work in tandem.
“The pragmatic nature and poise of the conversations, sprinkled with casual office humour transported us away from the stage and into Raine’s palm in the middle of an operating theatre.”
The intensity and the subject matter meant that I found it a real struggle to watch, but at the same time, I was glued to my laptop screen. Not simply because of the numbing brilliance of the play but because this, and maybe worse, is the reality for many today. It is all very well for me to clap on my doorstep on Thursday evenings but it was not until I had watched this play that I realised what I was really grateful for. It dawned on me that I would never be able to repay the debt I, and all of us, owe to health workers even if I clapped every minute of every day for the rest of my life.