The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted
by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others
by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review
the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.
Public Theater and YouTube Summer 2020
New York's Public Theater is
outside our usual remit, but by offering a new and original work online it
attracts our attention.
The Line fits into the new
genre of Zoom theatre, with actors in their own homes acting for computer
cameras. It is more effective than most because the script is a string of
intercut monologues, so there is not the obstacle of one screen trying to
talk to another.
It is also verbatim theatre,
drawn by writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews with
front-line health workers in New York City in the first months of 2020.
We meet, sitting in their
separate homes, an ambulance driver, a paramedic, an emergency room
doctor, an intern, a couple of nurses, and a care home director.
All start by giving a sense
of the stress and frantic nature of their 'ordinary' days while touchingly
communicating their commitment and the personal satisfaction they get from
doing their jobs well.
And then Covid hits, and New
York City turns to hell. A system that was getting by through the
dedication of people like these is overwhelmed.
Hospitals must turn away
patients because they have no beds. Protocols, systems and rules go out
the window. In the absence of respirators and other equipment substitutes
are borrowed, invented or jerry-rigged on the spot. Emergency rooms are
turned into triage stations in which doctors and nurses must decide who is
worth trying to save.
As we cut back and forth
among the speakers, individual anecdotes stand out. An EMT fights through
CPR to bring a patient back to life in his ambulance, only to have him die
again when the hospital has no room for him. A nurse tries to keep track
of a beloved uncle dying in one hospital while working to save others in
A former battlefield medic
starts getting flashbacks. A nurse who had previously studied acting finds
his Method training helps him manage his emotions. A cancer ward nurse,
proud of the way they have always bent the rules to allow families access
to their dying loved ones, agonises over having to forbid any access to
The common thread to the
monologues is unwavering dedication and anguish at not being able to do
what they want to do – save and help people.
As directed by Jessica Blank,
the seven performers - Santano Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison
Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan and Lorraine Toussaint – create
instant and fully rounded characterisations that never break the illusion
or lapse into types.
At just over an hour, the play produces its powerful emotional effect without having to strain to maintain it too long. In the mode of the best docudrama, The Line gives human faces to a story that we might know only through news reports or statistics
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