Perhaps Tychy is underwhelmed by theatre in the Summerhall because the shows are usually dwarfed by both the magnificence and the atmosphere of the venue. Edinburgh’s foremost “creative hub” has been established within a ruined veterinary school and, with the ghostly laboratories and lecture halls still discernible beneath the piles of flimsy art, it remains as Gothic as the House of Usher. Yet this venue can be flattering to plays which have been bent to capture its own reflection. Steve Lambert’s calamitous “Anna” (2013) would have immediately died on a conventional stage but it was somehow sustained by being squeezed into a claustrophobic basement corridor. The Dogstar Theatre Company’s “Factor 9” – a play about contaminated blood products in the NHS – likewise draws a certain strength from being planted in the shell of a medical auditorium, with all its lingering odour of decomposing medical authority. The props – a laboratory skeleton and a surgical trolley – might have been donated along with the building.
But “Factor 9” is a poor piece of theatre, ultimately because it is not a play. It is instead a sort of historical panorama, which bombards us with scrabbled impressions of the events within its narrative. And so when Bruce (Matthew Zajac) looks back over a childhood in hospital with his crony Rab (Stewart Porter) we get an illustrative snatch of two boys larking about in hospital beds. When he attends a protest at the Scottish parliament he submit an on-the-spot impersonation of somebody at a protest. When Rab is informed by his doctor that he is infected with HIV, the altercation is as brief as if he is being served in Starbucks. These micro-scenes only serve to torment the audience because the play is, as a totality, not short.
It is worthwhile to delve into the ins and outs of the blood-contamination scandal, but “Factor 9” abandons the objectivity which is needed to delve deep. In being narrated by victims who are crusading for justice, the story is naturally garbled and conspiratorial. The doctors’ motivations for allowing their patients to be injected with contaminated blood are never explained: were they criminally incompetent, or under the sway of corporate greed, or were they pursuing medical research in which it was thought that, as the play at one point alleges, “the ends justified the means”? As the doctor on stage only ever splutters empty apologies and he is never allowed to explain himself, we are left with the victims’ outrage against a distant, inexplicable establishment. A rather corny diabolical-horror implication that the NHS’s disregard of patients can be traced back to medical experiments in Auschwitz also evades the responsibility for serious analysis.
Zajac and Porter have the energy to bust their way through what look like gruelling performances, but they play generically decent characters, rather than real people. Zajac (who had previously starred in 2010’s “The Tailor of Inverness“) is an imposingly grey, wolfish presence, but the overall impression is of the storytelling gentleness of a primary school teacher. Porter is a gossiping, wheedling old boot, whose voice alone has much more character than anything he plays.
A third of the way through this performance and the lights have come on. The cast look sheepish, the audience smile at each other – a fire alarm is going off. I have the opportunity of a lifetime to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, but I hold back, somehow fearing that this might really plunge a civilised Summerhall audience into animal desperation. We are rushed out and, tearing down corridors, there is the panic that we might all turn a bend and be confronted with dancing flames and no escape. Once we are safely outside again, however, there is a rueful, festive atmosphere. This mass evacuation – I mean of the building – was conducted with clockwork efficiency and the Summerhall gets five stars for the interval.