UNDER the Mask is an installation work co-produced by Tamasha Theatre Company and Oxford Playhouse, and it is in Liverpool this week as part of a short tour of theatres in England and Wales.
A small audience is seated in an array of seats dotted about on an otherwise empty stage. Everyone seems to be looking towards at least one other person. We are all instructed in correct wearing of the headphones provided and, disconcertingly, offered a box of tissues.
The lights go down and the play begins. The six-strong cast are not with us in the building – under the direction of Sita Thomas, they have been recorded in what most closely resembles a radio play, presented in binaural audio via the headphones. This is accompanied by a shifting pattern of lighting which follows the narrative, with our only other visual cues being the reactions of the masked faces of other audience members surrounding us.
Author Shaan Sahota is a junior doctor, who was plunged into the realities of dealing with the Covid pandemic very early in her career. The play follows Jaskaran, a newly qualified doctor, whose training, like those of so many junior doctors last year, was brought to an early end to enable her to be deployed in a Covid Intensive Care Unit. The 55 minute span of the piece attempts to immerse us in the experience just as she is immersed in this abrupt baptism of fire that begins her medical career.
To a backdrop of sounds recorded in actual Covid wards, the text highlights a catalogue of challenges, from being told that the training will come tomorrow, to stark warnings about wasting the valuable and scarce PPE that they must all don and doff every time they enter and leave the ward. There is a sense of urgency and panic, mixed with feelings of hopelessness at scaling a seemingly insurmountable peak. What comes across most strongly is the miasma of fear, in which a patient can be heard demanding a white doctor one moment and then wheezing his last breath just hours later.
Around and about there is a knowing nodding and shaking of heads, a couple of masks surmounted by closed eyes, and one critic (not this one) scribbling madly in a notebook. Nobody reaches for the tissues.
Under the Mask is an urgent, powerful piece of testimony written and delivered with tremendous conviction, but occasionally it lacks sufficient clarity to drive its impact home fully. To some extent the presence of a mute audience around us and the play of the stage lights over our heads distract from the finely crafted audio experience, and prevent us from forming a clear mental picture to accompany what we are listening to. Closing the eyes feels like cheating, but possibly the work might be better experienced in solitude, in a darkened room.
After 3 days of performances here at Liverpool Playhouse, Under the Mask continues its tour at Oxford Playhouse and Rose Theatre Kingston.
Star Rating: 3 Stars
Review by Nigel Smith