Things that Matter provides a sobering account of the alarming state of our healthcare system, fed by an unhealthy food industry and ongoing poverty that has tragically impacted marginalised communities such as South Auckland. Although based on Dr David Galler’s best-selling memoir Things That Matter: Stories of Life & Death, written three decades ago, award-winning playwright Gary Henderson adeptly brings us to the present day showing that nothing much has changed for our healthcare system, its patients, and essential workers.
The main narrative, set in Middlemore hospital’s Accident & Emergency unit follows the increasingly pressured and frustrating working environment of the lead character Rafal Beckman (Ian Hughes) and his ethereal father Leon Beckman (Greg Johnson).
As an integral member of the South Auckland community, director Anapela Polata’ivao’s compassionate insight is the perfect complement to Henderson’s script to bring this new work to life. Her direction displays admirable restraint when delivering such weighty messaging about the cyclical demise of Māori and Pasifika communities resulting from NZ government’s failure to address underlying and ongoing poverty, deprivation and lack of education.
While many scenes could have copied the frenetic atmosphere that we are accustomed to when watching medical shows such as ER, Polata’ivao’s directorial choices are the complete opposite, choosing to infiltrate our psyche with the utmost subtlety. It is this light touch that makes us as audience members sit up and take note of the strong messaging that is being unravelled throughout the production.
Kudos goes to Filament Eleven 11’s production designers Rachel Marlow and Bradley Gledhill whose set and lighting were an absolute triumph. Without giving too much away, it was the simplicity of the set that allowed the lighting to create a depth of field that created a magical dimension on what could have been a very sterile palette. It would be remiss not to mention the Poulima Salima’s spine chilling music, alongside Matt Eller’s equally dramatic sound design, the “machine that goes ping” made famous by Monty Python was also very much in evidence.
The diverse cast, both ethnically and in terms of age and experience, is refreshing and great to see at Auckland’s Waterfront Theatre. Watching the likes of the doyenne of theatre Donogh Rees (Raza Beckman), alongside stalwarts like David Aston (Simon/Matheson) and Johnson in action was an absolute treat. Ian Hughes (Rafal Beckman), Nicola Kāwana (Carol), Stacey Leilua (Ana/Tiara) and Semu Filipo (Sol/Chris) also gave standout performances.
Case studies concerning three different patients were cleverly used to weave medical dilemmas, difficult decisions, cultural sensitivities and the tragedy of death and loss together into the narrative.
The scene that most successfully displayed these themes was the bickering between an Asian doctor Edie (Jen Huang) and the Samoan staff member played by Leilua. We witness how language and the lack of carefully expressed viewpoints can easily escalate and reveal pre-existing prejudices as well as misunderstandings when dealing with multicultural patients. A few more equally meaty scenes like this one would have added even more gravitas to this already stellar production.
Dr Beckman’s team itself is a standard microcosm of Aotearoa’s society enabling further explorations of issues of racial prejudice, religious beliefs, questionable judgement, insane working hours, and dedication to the Hippocratic Oath. But despite the inanely harmful bureaucratic cost-cutting decisions, the care, kindness, and integrity of the medical staff still manages to shine through.
Political indifference is cleverly personified by the Minister of Health – seemingly more interested in what is “saleable” or “sexy” than truly addressing the root of the problem.
While it was incredibly interesting seeing the lead character Rafal Beckman’s life as a doctor artfully contrasted with tender stories about his Polish-Jewish family, in a second storyline, it was difficult to see how such disparate plots could gel with one another. Although poignant, at times it felt like the backstory of the Beckmans’ ancestry diverted from the healthcare storyline. While both are more than worthy subjects to be tackled, it was unclear how they were linked. Despite some initially welcomed light relief that the story of the Beckmans provided (notably from the beautifully disagreeable Judith (Margaret-Mary Hollins), that plotline slowly but surely morphed into a horrific tragedy in itself.
Things that Matter is a vital, informative, entertaining show that definitely needs to be seen widely. There is no ‘bedpan’ humour or Carry On Doctor schtick here, but a serious and diligent attempt to explore crucial societal themes that extend beyond the immediate and obvious health crises in Aotearoa.
As with many opening nights, the first half felt a little bit long especially considering the bombardment of facts, tragedies, relationships, politics and backstories we were initially subjected to. However, the second half was most satisfying – by the time we were ‘discharged’ it was clear that the ‘caring profession’ indeed has people that do care. And in spite of it all human kindness can often, but not always, triumph when faced with the most difficult of circumstances.
This show is possibly overambitious in its scope of issues to discuss, but in no way does that diminish its importance. There clearly is an abundance of subject matter for Henderson to mine from Galler’s memoir. Personally we look forward to and would love to see a complementary show very soon. ATC, please produce Everything Else that Matters without delay.
Things That Matter plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 12th-27th August 2023