I am at the Cowgate Underbelly this morning to see a new play by Daisy Minto and Norwich’s Orange Sky Theatre. “In Addition” is ostensibly about the importance of the NHS but, in a somewhat self-destructive irony, it is ultimately about weakness, failure, and not being fit enough to survive.
Minto’s play is set in a near future in which the NHS has been replaced with private health insurance. The lives of Ben (Tom Mason) and Sheyna (Rachel Elizabeth Coleman) are now going to pot. He cannot find reliable work and he will succumb to a bedbound spiral of depression. She is worried about her sick father and she feels ominously jumpy following a break-in at their home. The whole story is in effect an ongoing crisis and nothing will ever get better.
The two performances are always rich and engrossing. The couple have ended up in that recognisably terminal stage of a relationship where they are both uncommunicative when they need to speak and henpecking when they really shouldn’t. “In Addition” is always visually stunning, with its action flaring and dimming within a kind of emergency-lighting chiaroscuro. It is also adeptly curated by an atmospheric soundtrack. The script builds up an authentic sense of modern life at home (a surprisingly rare thing to achieve in today’s theatre) by reporting faithfully on the characters’ search-engine terms and phone activity. The end product is rather like a Holbein portrait of two minor courtiers – glossy, strikingly lit, and disquietingly lifelike.
But my diagnosis is that “In Addition” could be considerably improved by amputating the gangrene of its politics. Or rather, it is that any mention of the NHS is like an appendix that could be freely cut out of this story and flushed away. Although crisis runs deep within the couple’s psyches, we are urged to believe that they could be saved by a particular model of healthcare. I don’t think that anybody in the audience believes a word of it. It is as surreal as those adverts that attribute a businesswoman’s confidence to her brand of shampoo.
In its anguish, the play comes to connect with the familiar hysteria of Victorian temperance fantasies in which innocent girls are dumped on the streets and reduced to degradation and infamy. How jarring it is, therefore, that Ben and Sheyna are hardly mistreated waifs but overgrown middle-class children with degrees and careers in the media. Ben is only held back by a corrosive inner rot, an infantilism that is as huge as a whale. As with Saul Bellow’s character Tommy Wilhelm, Ben’s wretchedness is given its life-force by the calm, distant figure of his watching father. Ben can never live up to the patriarch.
Bellow was probably more on the father’s side than he was on Wilhelm’s. I likewise think that it is asking too much of us to pity Ben. The moral is indeed as simple as it looks: he needs to man up and pull himself together. If, gesticulating from afar, the playwright maintains that access to counselling will save Ben, we might answer that this will only infantilise him even further. “In Addition” indeed lacks the crucial epiphany that concludes Bellow’s novel.
“In Addition” thus resembles a luxurious dessert that has been built on a layer of cheap biscuit. Why betray sophisticated characters by railroading their drama into some wonky propaganda? What is even the logic of Minto’s argument? Ben and Sheyna would surely benefit the most from the private healthcare that is introduced during their lifetimes, because they are malingerers, who suffer from common ailments that the privatisers would treat with an EasyJet, fast-buck efficiency. The whole point of pooled healthcare funding is that it safeguards those with the obscure diseases that generate high premiums – the medical equivalents of flying to remote, unpopular airstrips. Depending on the NHS to cure Ben’s soul is just the sort of misuse that has made the service so expensive.
Moreover, one should challenge the sinister role that is cast for private health provision within this play. In California, it is those nasty, greedy private companies who are doing the only serious medical research into curing diabetes and macular degeneration. The NHS certainly isn’t doing this – indeed, in having its funding pegged to the growth of the ailing UK economy, it is currently in its own death spiral. Ben could well hold up a mirror to the wretchedness of the system that is supposed to save him.