‘Tiger Country’ puts NHS behind bars

From Emily (Ruth Everett), the young novice hospital aide who cares too much and wants to save everyone to Vashti (Thusitha Jayasundera), the over-bearing, cold female surgeon that puts her career above love-life and has to be in charge of everything, “Tiger Country” is about a series of seemingly-stereotypical personalities working within the confines of London’s National Health Service. Yet Nina Raine’s play is written and directed so cleverly, one does not realize the richness of the characters and subtexts of the play until the very end.

Raine does this by creating short scenes full of sharp, honest dialogue that pokes at the very soul. From one scene to another, Raine smoothly transitions from commenting about the “women who fail at careers having children” to how doctor-work becoming little more than a series of lucky incidences and instinctive hunches. Her script and directing show that doctors are really the ones on the operating tables along with the patient they are operating on — as they have to either live with the consequences of their decisions and failures to save someone’s life, or kill their emotions so they don’t bathe with the guilt. The ruthless profession produces characters who are angry and bitter — jealous of another doctor’s superior command or drinking themselves to sleep.

Meanwhile, the splendid acting and characterization of “Tiger Country’s” cast really drives Raine’s points home. The medical staff are nasty, undermining each other for their own self-benefit under the guise of “teamwork” — where no one takes responsibility for their mistakes. Because there is no benefit in overworking — because there will always be patients and surgeries and cardiac arrests that keep taking and taking and taking despite doctors’ best efforts — NHS hospitals are usually short-staffed with never-ending waiting lists. Hospitals are full of people like Emily and Vashti — where their work environment changes them. Whereas both may have entered the profession waiting to make a difference, their former passions become just a job where slow, sloppy work will be enough to get by. Do we really want these people to take care of us? Should we really let these people play “god”?

While Raine’s play makes us question the identity of our caregivers, her work is also complimented by Lizzie Clachan’s design, Rick Fisher’s lighting design, Fergus O’Hare’s sound and Jane Gibson’s movement direction. Through all these elements, such as the music and the graphs of x-rays and ultrasounds on the walls, the audience is transported through the swinging doors and curtains of a hospital as the cast rushes to and fro from surgeries to cardiac arrests.

As we watch our physicians cope with the high-stress atmosphere, bone-weary tiredness and sicknesses that seem to rub off on them, we watch how the people who supposedly “fix” us break down. Raine’s play seems to make a political statement, showing how the NHS is a broken system, and that drains the life out of the most eager young aides and breaks the hearts of the most jaded professionals.

“Tiger Country” is written and directed by Nina Raine, and shown at the Hampstead Theatre in London.