According to the press release, Change of Heart is “based on the story of Professor Julia Polak who paradoxically became ill with the very disease she was researching”. Good gracious, what are the odds?! Imagine how the knowledge of such a vicious irony must have dawned on her? Imagine how that must have affected her attitude to her own research? And to the disease she’d already come to know so intimately?
Well, you can keep on imagining because you’ll find scant satisfaction for any such curiosities in Rosemary Friedman’s new play, which might more accurately be titled “Transplant Tales”. By the time the piece opens, the story has raced far beyond that, with the fictional professor Jessie Sands (Julie-Kate Olivier) already huffing and puffing, having only a matter of weeks left to live if she doesn’t secure a new set of lungs.
Over the next overly long two-and-three-quarter hours, we get scene after exhaustive scene covering just about every metaphysical, moral and emotional aspect of organ transplantation imaginable. Have medical advances altered the definition of existence? Have they engendered unrealistic expectations about curability? Is it right to pray for one death to prevent another? What is the nature of a surgeon’s resilience? Do body parts retain personality traits from their original owner? How do families cope? Is there life after death?
The dangerous mutability of doctor-patient relationships – and some truly awkward memories involving tango and Argentine seduction – is thrown into the mix for good measure, as are the more pertinent ethics of waiting lists. Does one life matter more than another? Clearly the answer is yes, but, though Sands’ pioneering research may be important, her character is so unlikeable it’s difficult to root for her over her fellow transplant candidate, the 17-year-old Anna.
I fear the success of Anna’s characterisation owes more to a finely plucky performance from Estelle Morgan than to Friedman’s script or Michael Gieleta’s sometimes plodding direction. In any case, the scenes between Anna and Emilio Doorgasingh’s physician Dr Bala, with whom she’s smitten, are the only points where the story seems to strike any real human gold. And, sadly, they are few and far between.
Change of Heart could benefit from a drastic change of emphasis. As it is, like Jessie Sands’ breathing, it feels like too much of an effort.
- Terri Paddock