Review: The Privatisation of Ward 9B
The Privatisation of Ward 9B follows a desperate psychiatrist, Doctor Craven (played by David McCrae) in his efforts to supplement diminishing public funding by dragging his patients into the merciless world of economic enterprise. Written in 1991 at a time when the Hawke-Keating government was privatising public services such as airports, airlines, telecommunications and banks, Bill Marshall’s social message still rings clear – we bring an emphasis on profit making and cost cutting into the provision of public services at the peril of those most vulnerable in society. As I was born in the year it was written, I’ve only ever known these services to be private, and wonder if the setting had a more meaningful impact on the audience’s members from an older generation.
Walking into the intimate black box theatre at La Mama, a nurse seated in the corner of the stage judged our every movements. It was as if we had entered a psychiatric ward as patients instead of a theatre as audience members, foreshadowing the audience’s active role as characters in the story that unfolded.
We were addressed as potential investors, which questioned the morality of our role as observers of a stage performance as a parallel to those people detained on behalf of society at large. Theatre norms were smashed from the beginning when the theatre manager gave his Welcome to Country and phones off announcement after the play had seemingly begun. With the actors on stage with him, they guided the audience members to a medicine cup with a “pill” under each of our chairs. I don’t know what was in that pill but it was a roller coaster into crazy land from that moment forward.
Mike, played by Marc Opitz, claims he is a sane visitor of the hospital, trapped in the ward and being treated like a patient. Much like Leonardo Dicaprio in Shutter Island, the audience is left wondering whether he is the only voice of reason, or profoundly self-deluded. The thematic relevance of this character in a wider sense opened the question; who should be given the power to decide what is sane and what is not? In Ward 9B, the audience is privy to Dr Craven’s abuse of authority to make these judgements, yet within the world of the play fails to see his corruption and wrongly rewards his manipulations. The farcical results are begging to be compared with our contemporary political and social landscapes.
Mike’s sub-story, like all four of the patients in Ward 9B, I felt were not fully developed and could have been produced as separate plays altogether. With the patient’s back stories, their mild relationship developments and the overarching story all happening on stage simultaneously with no ascertainable rhyme or reason, the story line was at times difficult to follow. There were moments in which eight character were crowding the tiny stage with no obvious justification. Physically and psychologically it was utterly chaotic. Trapped in the small theatre for 80 minutes, as an audience member I began to feel what the patients in that ward might be experiencing such as agitation, relentlessness and disorientation.
A special mention to Matthew Richard Walsh who plays Max, a creepy, depraved patient, whose acting was nuanced and consistent Caroline Ferguson who plays the vain Nurse Wrench (perhaps a nod to and a less malevolent version of Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratched) has a beautifully resonant voice which filled up the space both when she was speaking, and when she treated us to a strange and random cabaret performance. I thought the acting of the cast as a whole was a little disconnected disconnected at times where lines or physical responses were anticipated, although this could have been a directorial choice by Mark E Lawrence to set up a hyper realistic, melodramatic tone.
The synopsis promises an interesting explanation into a controversial matter, but I found that the scriptwriting, direction and acting all tried to cover too much ground, which meant sacrificing a clear message, and losing important themes along the way.
The Privatisation of Ward 9B is showing at La Mama theatre in Carlton until the 19th of February.
Written by Scarlett Koehne