Plays like Terry Johnson's Insignificance and Caryl Churchill's
Top Girls have famously made theatrical mileage out of putting
historical figures into fictional collision with each other. Sebastian
Barry now attempts to do the same with a poetically written but
dramatically arid new play, Whistling Pysche, that introduces two
19th-century medical reformers to each other on a long, dark night of the
soul for them, and an even longer, darker night in the theatre for us.
One is Florence Nightingale - the nursing pioneer and reformer of military
hospital sanitation methods, who has been forever immortalised by history.
The other is James Miranda Barry - an army surgeon who also did pioneering
medical work, but is nowadays remembered more notoriously for a secret
revealed after his death.
The fact that he is played by Kathryn Hunter in Robert Delamere's
premiere production of the play is part of that secret. But Hunter is always
such a powerfully strange but compelling actress that her presence here
doesn't so much solve the mystery as add to it. Who is this diminutive
creature scuttling about in army uniform, remembering his poodles (whom he
called Psyche, hence the title of the play), and a career that took him from
Cork in Ireland, where he was born, to British imperialist outposts from
South Africa to Canada?
We have ample opportunity to find out in the long, discursive monologues
that Barry supplies him with. Complete with a convincingly balding pate and
stooped gait, it's another in Hunter's marvellously inhabited creatures. But
there's no drama. And nor does it ignite in the portrait of the more staid,
severe figure of Nightingale - taken by Claire Bloom in a no less total
transformation of this usually beautiful actress.
Set in the waiting room of a Victorian railway station - atmospherically
conjured in Simon Higlett's design and Tim Mitchell's evocative
lighting, with an air of dislocation underlined by a rolling grey film on a
rear projection by Jon Driscoll and the insistent musical underscoring of
Ross Lorraine - they are awaiting some kind of redemption out of what may
be purgatory. But though there are shafts of brilliant writing throughout,
prose alone doesn't make drama, and I, too, longed to escape this particular