Under the Mask review – at the coalface of the Covid crisis

·2 min read

A junior doctor’s first nervous day at work is a baptism of fire: “We’ve missed the opportunity to contain this virus,” says a hospital consultant as cases pile up in the early days of the pandemic.

Jaskaran (Aysha Kala) travels across “Covid critical” wards to meet frazzled fellow doctors and patients who are kind, curmudgeonly or racist (“Get me a fecking white doctor,” says one). Back at home, her parents are naive to the dangers she is facing as well as the psychological trauma.

An audio play directed by Sita Thomas and delivered through binaural headphones in an auditorium of scattered lone seats at Theatre Peckham, this Tamasha and Oxford Playhouse co-production offers us an experience that is collective yet individual. It has authenticity too: writer Shaan Sahota is a doctor as well as a playwright, and its background sounds were recorded on real Covid wards.

While this gives it integrity, there are few insights that take us beyond what we know already: the woeful lack of PPE, the heroic stoicism of doctors, the fact that young people died as well as old, and that so many died alone.

Farokh Soltani’s sound design encompasses everything from Jaskaran’s guided meditation tapes, as she tries to decompress, to the hum of hospital life. They seem more disturbing for being “real” recordings but they are strangely muted and together with the script do not contain enough emotional or narrative intrigue to suck us in and fire the story forward.

There are some evocative moments (especially a Skype call made by an Urdu-speaking wife to her dying husband), but the script too often gives way to the granular and slightly undramatic details of hospital life.

Ashley Bale’s lighting design charts the tonal shifts of the script and at times seems too subtle, but it does contain a dramatic moment of total darkness when we hear nothing but the cough and wheeze of Covid patients. There is also the germ of an interesting discussion on Jaskaran’s Sikh faith in the light of witnessing human suffering but this feels cut short and disconnected from the greater drama.

Theatre began to chart the pandemic almost as soon as it began, from the short, sharp monologues of the first lockdown to productions such as The Ballad of Corona V and Tales from the Frontline. This production is a reminder of the perils that junior doctors were placed under at the coalface of the Covid crisis; it is full of tenderness but leaves us, frustratingly, at a remove.

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