Friday, February 23

Under the Mask – Liverpool Playhouse

With the possibility of restrictions being lifted and mask wearing no longer being compulsory, Under the Mask is a timely and poignant reminder of the situation 18 months ago when Covid first hit our shores and our health service.

An audio play by Shaan Sahota, herself a doctor, it tracks the first days of newly qualified doctor, Jaskaran (Aysha Kala),  as she tries to navigate her way around a new job, a new hospital, and a new virus combining an almost documentary, prosaic tone with personal stories. If judged by conventional standards, it is by no means perfect, but as an experience reflecting a current social crisis that has affected us all, it is an important piece of theatre.

As a theatrical experience, it differs from simply listening to a play on the radio. The audience is seated on the stage, thus becoming part of the action while listening through binaural headphones to Jaskaran’s exchanges with hospital staff and patients, and then home to her proud parents, who can’t understand her pleas for them not to come close, not to touch her or her clothes, to leave her food outside her bedroom door, while the lighting design, by Ashley Bale, reflects the changes in setting and tone.

Thus, we are simultaneously part of a shared immersive experience with the sound design by Farokh Soltani, which includes recordings from real Covid wards, lending an intimacy that would be lost through any other medium, but we also remain isolated from everyone else and from the action. In this way, the play mirrors the events that by their very nature – and this is emphasised continually – exclude all but the patients and those caring for them, enclosing them in a world whose barriers are indelibly marked by Covid.

Again, unlike a normal play, there is no overarching narrative. The structure is provided by the moves from hospital to home, by following the stories of individual patients, by Jaskaran’s growing understanding that though new to the job, she has been thrown in at the deep end, but similarly, her fellow workers are also struggling to come to terms with the new reality. And while we are in one way familiar with the themes of the lack of PPE, the emotional farewells  via iPad, the need to select who will benefit from the treatment and who must be relegated to palliative care only, they are given a new immediacy by being experienced for the first time by Jaskaran while the relatively more knowledgeable doctor ably, voiced by Neil d’Souza, fills in both audience and characters on the reality of what they are facing and the choice they each have to make – how can they reconcile themselves to someone dying due to a possible mistake on their part, but also, how can they walk away? We become involved in Jaskaran’s struggle to find the balance of giving her all while keeping ‘30%’ back so she can keep going, of being involved while maintaining professional detachment, of the human element, from the racist demanding a ‘white doctor’ to the wife asking Jaskaran to hold her husband’s hand as she bids him farewell. And the instruction from her mindfulness tape to keep breathing, to concentrate on the breath eerily echoes the wheezing of the ventilators as the patients on the ward try to do exactly that.

Reviewer: Johanna Roberts

Reviewed: 8th July 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★