Returning to the Hampstead Theatre for a second time after a sell-out run in 2011, Tiger Country is writer-director Nina Raine’s examination of the inner workings of a busy general hospital.
The success of the first run of the play may have come as something of a surprise. Most people have some degree of anxiety about hospitals. We don’t want to go to one, and we certainly don’t like to think about what might go on behind the scenes. So a play that pulls a roof off one and reveals the barely contained chaos – the million little compromises, the ageing equipment, the frayed nerves and petty tensions of the sleep deprived medics – for all to see – well, it’s a tough sell. So it’s a testament to the strength of the script and the talent of the cast that Tiger Country pulls the audience so irresistibly into its world and its story.
The first half is a whirr of complex moving parts. Doctors and nurses lurch between crises in a carefully orchestrated ballet, punctuated by snatched moments of peace and levity in coffee rooms. The evocation of the modern NHS is strikingly authentic. The stage dressing is spare and institutional, all styrofoam cups and uneaten sandwiches left on cheap tables, set against the unmistakable cold hum of expensively procured strip lighting. The warmth comes from the cast, who all give plausible and sympathetic portrayals of the people you find in hospitals, particularly the doctors – flawed, jaded, often ruthlessly careerist, but all driven by the same same basic empathy for the frightened patients in their ward and the desire to make people better.
Indira Varma gets the meatiest role in prickly, fragile Vashti, around whom the core tensions of the play – balancing empathy and objectivity, career and personal life, instinct and protocol, leadership and teamwork – begin to develop. The scene in which a routine operation goes awry under her watch is the fulcrum of the first half; a riveting, prop-heavy set piece which shows the audience what the surgeons are already constantly aware of: that death is only ever a slip of the hand away.
The pace of the second half is more measured, and some scenes away from the hospital setting give characters the space to interact at greater length. For a while the slower pace feels like a loss of momentum, and occasionally character takes a back seat to theme – a couple of the arcs felt a little too neatly symbolic – but the play builds to a gut-churningly emotional climax, and gradually it dawns that the main character in Tiger Country is the hospital itself, and the medics and patients are only parts of its anatomy, dissected before us with uncomfortable precision, but enormous care and insight. It may not make you any more eager to visit your local general hospital, but it will surely give you a new understanding of the weird, complex beast that is our health service, and the humanity and compassion that fuels it.