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Whose Blood: A tale of desire and despair set in a 19th-century operating theatre

December 12, 2011

Theatre review – by Helen Bynum

What would you do for the one you love? Alex Burger’s new play, which premiered in London in March 2011, explores this question (and much more) in the medically and socially charged atmosphere of Britain in the early 1830s.

Hugo (Mark Hawkins) and Efua (Candice Onyeama) meet in a gin shop. Alex/No Not Never

Hugo (Mark Hawkins) and Efua (Candice Onyeama) meet in a gin shop. Alex/No Not Never

In 1831 cholera arrived in Sunderland, soon to spread throughout the country. In 1832 the Anatomy Act was passed, allowing the unclaimed bodies of the poor to be used for dissection, and the Poor Law Commission was established under Edwin Chadwick to investigate how to deal with the pressing problem of the urban poor. As the play comes to its tragic close in 1833, the British Government passes the Slavery Abolition Act. It is a tribute to Burger’s writing that so much is conveyed in an hour-long play without obvious didacticism.

In Whose Blood, Abakah and Efua Kuntu (Charlie Folorunsho and Candice Onyeama) are an ambitious West African couple who have journeyed to London in search of a better life for their young child. Efua makes very good gin, the sale of which supplements their combined income from working as a factory hand in a hatter’s and a labourer in a tanner’s. Life is good enough, until Abakah’s swollen and increasingly painful liver prompts Efua to seek the aid of an ambitious young surgeon, Hugo Forester (Mark Hawkins). She offers him her gin and then herself to win his help for Abakah after they are turned away from St Thomas’ Hospital, judged by the hospital’s authorities as insufficiently ‘deserving’ to qualify for free treatment.

The choice of St Thomas’ is not incidental. Burger conceived Whose Blood to be performed in the Old Operating Theatre, once part of the old St Thomas’ Hospital before its move westwards along London’s South Bank. The operating theatre was built in the attic of St Thomas’ Church in 1822. Now a popular museum, it provided a unique theatrical setting. This was one of the attractions for the play’s director Karena Johnson (CEO/Artistic Director at the Broadway, Barking, London), who uses its confines to good effect. In such a small space, the proximity of audience and actors would inevitably provoke a frisson, but Burger goes beyond the obvious and has much of the rhythmic dialogue aimed directly outwards. The audience are a mutable fifth character: a medical student during consultations, a witness during Efua’s spiritual rituals and a confidant for everyone.

Hugo works under the tutelage of the senior surgeon Samuel Carter (John Gorick). Samuel is weary; he avoids the ghosts of his patients by taking laudanum. Hugo ensures Samuel has a supply of the drug, just as he looks after the supply of bodies – both licit and illicit – required for anatomical and surgical instruction. Eventually, Abakah makes an evening call on the senior surgeon. He needs to know his chances with or without an experimental operation and weigh up what his body might be worth to his wife. He finds a spaced-out Samuel slouched against the back wall of the operating theatre, and the two engage in a dialogue otherwise unthinkable across the class and racial divide separating them. It is a conversation composed of the dreamlike repetition of key words: “I am the chief surgeon”, “I am the son of a chief”. The morning after they have met and talked as equals, the senior surgeon haughtily refuses to engage with his black working-class patient when Abakah tentatively reminds him of their shared identity. There is no poetry without laudanum. Samuel also remains reluctant to carry out the drainage operation suggested by Hugo. Unperturbed, Hugo seizes the initiative: after all, success would make him a famous surgeon, and failure might easily be swept away given the marginality of his patient. Abakah’s blood, like that of the others in the operating theatre – the blood of the title – can be soaked up in the fresh sawdust in the box on the floor.

Efua opens and closes the play with a sung ritual for the dead, her voice joined by the other members of the cast offstage. It is a powerful piece of direction and sets the tone for what is ultimately Efua’s play. When Abakah drifts into sentimental, flawed memories of life in their home village, she pulls him up short because it is her faith in Hugo’s medicine, rather than the traditional medicine of their African home, that drives her onwards. It is her story, and it is ably told through Onyeama’s strong performance.

This Bankcider production of the play was supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, the Talawa Theatre Company, the Broadway, and the Arts Council.

Helen Bynum is a Research Associate at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine.

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