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Grace Under Pressure

Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Seymour Centre and The Big Anxiety – Festival of Arts+Science+People present, GRACE UNDER PRESSURE, by David Williams and Paul Dwyer in collaboration with the Sydney Arts and Health Collective, in the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre. 25 – 28 October.

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE is a new work of verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre is a type of ‘documentary’ theatre in which the script is created from the spoken words of real people gathered in interviews.

This work involved the health industry and concerned itself, principally, with the nurse and doctor experience, with each other and the patient. The work is broken into several sections that traverses the career expectations and experiences of these professionals. We begin with the altruistic aspirations of the young and move through the training, the political and social obstacles of the system – both positive and negative – and into the moral/ethical dilemmas of the day to day challenges.

Lit with a ‘surgical’ cleanliness by Richard Manner, a white suspended circle tilted and cross-sectioned with vertical and horizontal wooden lines is balanced with a white oval space on the floor which is dotted with 12 or so microphones (Set Design, by Isabel Hudson). Four actors: Renee Lim, Rose Maher (especially interesting), Sal Sharah and Wendy Strehlow, dressed in simple contemporary casual wear move from microphone to microphone and impersonate the transcribed and edited text both orally and, subtly, physically. There is no narrative just bare-bone witnessing of the experience in our health system from a professional point-of-view. It is all handled cleanly and efficiently by Director, David Williams, with an atmospheric and useful Sound Design by Gail Priest – even though, for me, there were moments, particularly, towards the end of the work, of slightly jarring theatrical ‘gesture’ that had a propensity to zealous identification by the actors with some of the material – creating a sentimental, maudlin aura about it – so that the work lost its objective clarity and muddied it with uncomfortable distracting subjectivity.

The audience I saw this production with seemed to be mostly Health system practitioners and resultantly there was often verbal response and knowing laughter and whispered comment and conversation with each other during the performance. GRACE UNDER PRESSURE does not really cover anything that we have not read or heard about in the recent years in the newspapers or on radio/television but is a succinct compendium of issues that underline the need to have ‘real’ conversations about circumstances that do not seem to have changed much despite the airing of them by those public means.

This work, so the program handout suggests, was developed to invite “you to become part of the conversation about how healthcare workplaces impact doctors, nurse, patients and carers, and how they can be improved.” It would be wonderful if that happened and it seems to be a necessary priority but one wonders whether this work appeals only to the ‘knowing’ and the ‘converted’ who are already involved. Is GRACE UNDER PRESSURE just another revision of known facts that are present and provocative but not actioned with positive activity, consequently? Let us hope not. Although it seemed to me, as I watched and listened to this work, the hierarchical (patriarchal?) structure and values and claimed ‘rights’ of this tradition-bound industry are still well ensconced and the fear of speaking out for change is fanned by the need to help the ill, the patient, the community by the inspired altruism of the many and their preparedness to endure the difficult (criminal?) few despite the otherwise unconscionable pressures. If all that we read, have heard, is true, those practicians must have, perforce, a ‘ragged’ sense of Grace, that, despite all, still embraces the fabric of humanity at its working best. Like the explosion of sexual harassment reporting that is currently being examined in the Entertainment industry – it takes numbers to generate power for change, it seems. Maybe this is the value of a work like GRACE UNDER PRESSURE? Discussion, Queries. Facebook, internet pressure, may provide the catalyst of numbers. Mission objective achieved?

Please discuss.