A doctor who treated covid patients is taking us onto a ward with her…
NOT many people outside of the NHS have ever been inside a covid ward in a hospital.
Even those with close family suffering and in intensive care were mostly barred from entry – to prevent any onward transmission.
Now an original play, ‘Under the Mask’, by Shaan Sahota, and produced by Tamasha and Oxford Playhouse, takes us right into such a ward and we experience the play through sound and the testimony of a young newly qualified doctor who has volunteered to work on a covid ward.
The sound design is very precise and specially assembled – and some of the noises are actually recorded from a real ward – with actors voicing the characters in the 60-minute drama.
Sahota is a practising doctor– and she worked on just such a ward herself in West London last year.
She wrote a piece about her experiences – it was published in The Guardian (see link below) and was one of the first and few personal pieces about working on the frontline tackling covid.
It was from that article – as an emerging playwright with Tamasha, and one other work behind her (‘The Estate’), that she developed this into what is the audio play, ‘Under the mask’ and currently touring the country. (See below for listings)
“I was trying to reflect on what happened,” she told www.asianculturevulture.com “I’d just gone away with my family and it was a moment of pause…to think, what was that that we all went through?”
Of course, at that time nobody could have accurately predicted that we would still be in a pandemic more than a year later.
“I was really unhappy – I did have feelings of being overwhelmed and there were feelings of chaos and fear.
“I wanted to write about it. I wanted to share it – through a dramatic vehicle.”
We hear what the central character, Jaskaran, does. It is her experience of covid as she walks onto an intensive care ward on her first day in the job as a newly qualified medic.
Acv had not seen the play at the time of talking to Sahota, but it is clear that this is critical care of covid patients up close and very personal.
“It’s like you’re standing behind someone and it’s about something you are not used to…it’s almost like you are a witness,” Sahota described.
There were media reports – and we all saw pictures and watched interviews with patients who were getting better and on their way back to health, but the true horror, intensity, fear and pain for those who lost loved ones was, possibly understandably, shielded from us.
This play is a way of getting underneath that – one aspect of getting ‘Under the Mask’.
For a start, many covid patients died alone – some families had to say goodbye via Skype – their last meaningful interaction via a digital device. It sounds hollow just writing that sentence and yet there was no alternative.
“It is a nightmarish world – you will sit in the dark and hear those sounds – the ventilators and footsteps of people getting closer,” Sahota said taking us into the world of ‘Under the Mask’.
It’s this sharing of experience that is important – it is a way of making sense of a very difficult time not just in the UK but globally – few nations have been spared.
“There was a huge disconnect,” Sahota explained. “It was infiltrating every facet of life, as soon as we went into the first lockdown, it was on the news the whole time and I would hear it on the radio, driving to work and it was all everyone was talking about.”
This is what we (as a society) consumed at one remove and from a distance, mostly.
“I just felt so lonely,” said Sahota of that time. “You are so isolated and weirdly no one ever asked me ‘what it is you do all day?’
“What does it mean to be working during a pandemic?’
“People were afraid they were traumatising you by asking about it.”
For the staff too there was a collective trauma, perhaps not as widely acknowledged – burnout, yes, but something deeper too.
“There was a sense of helplessness.
“The nurses would be looking to me – the patient is not saturating and I’d be looking to the senior doctors – and the senior doctors would be looking to others colleagues. It was heart-breaking.
“This was a shock for everyone – I saw everyone in the hospital cry at different points, people who had been consultants for 30 years, student doctors, nurses, it was awful – I don’t think (constant) experience numbs you to horror.
“If it happens again, it will still be horrific, but I do think there are lessons.”
Sahota is recording what was – and continues to be – a challenging and profound time.
She is reflective, considered and mature – she has been a doctor for two years and was rotating around specialities before she worked on the covid ward.
The play is also about fortitude and hope and it has been described as thrilling, despite its difficult subject.
She loves writing for the theatre but isn’t thinking of giving up her work as a doctor. Her next play is about something completely different – ‘Amortal Coil’ is a “stripped back sci-fi romance”, describes Tamasha, of this new work, by the partnered Sahota who lives in London.
Some people want to forget the pandemic and return to life as it was before – others, perhaps, wonder why it isn’t being written about more, at least on a very personal level.
“I would love it if someone saw/heard ‘Under the Mask’ and said: ‘I experienced someone else’s reality’.
“I don’t think there has been this sharing of experience.
“There are lessons in pain and suffering. Death and suffering are great teachers. Our society is geared up towards pleasures, hedonism and competitivity – and this experience (of covid) can catch you off guard and teach you humility and appreciate what life is…”
Tamasha and Oxford Playhouse supported by Sennheiser present ‘Under the Mask’ by Shaan Sahota, directed by Sita Thomas with sound design by Farokh Soltani.
60 minutes – cast: Aysha Kala, Stacy Abalogun, Neil D’Souza, Amerjit Deu, Lourdes Faberes, Balvinder Sopal
Theatr Clwyd, Raikes Lane, Mold CH7 1YA
Wednesday, June 30-Saturday, July 3 7pm & 4pm
Liverpool Playhouse, Willamson Square, Liverpool L1 1EL
Tuesday, July 8-Saturday, July 10
5pm & 7pm
Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street, Oxford, UK, OX1 2LW
Monday, July 12 – Thursday, July 15.
Check listings for times
Rose Theatre, 24-26 High St, Kingston upon Thames KT1 1HL (London)
Wednesday, July 21-Sunday, July 25
Check listings for times
Supported also by the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund
Shaan Sahota in The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/29/covid-britain-doctor-intensive-care-london-hospital