It is a testament to Drowning’s evocative marketing that Pleasance Above is so packed out on this sunny afternoon in Edinburgh. The stage is set: four bathtubs and a filing cabinet form the playground for Jessica Ross’ four Austrian murderesses. The opening question of the play is why did four nurses kill almost 200 of their patients. Is it murder or mercy? It is a question that the play will try to answer.
The four murderesses themselves are Evelyn Edwards, Andrea Helene, Aurora Henning and Ross (who is also responsible for the writing of the script). Helene is particularly adept, giving a pathos-ringed performance of her suicidal neglected mother. The others carry moments of the same brilliance — Edwards’ final monologue is another stand out moment — yet all four also give incredibly samey performances. The four women are so consistently stoic that I have to suspect it is a directorial choice. The cold exterior is, presumably, to create the appearance of psychopathy. However this also removes a line of much needed empathy between the characters and the audience.
Each of the four nurses is given a motivation which Ross has derived from interviews with prisoners, a fact she uses to justify the list of clichés that motivate each character. She has looked for links of commonality, for reasons that people commit crimes. It can be argued that the reasons these things are clichés is largely because they are true. Most people who do morally reprehensible things have had bad things happen to them. Real people do occasionally conform to tropes yet what I feel is missing here is a real exploration of how Point A leads to Point B. Ultimately, Ross falls back on the need for affection from one of the nurses, Waltrund, to motivate the other three. This need for affection, however, never becomes a point of conflict. It is conflict that the script badly needs. The four ladies are so completely resolved to commit “mercy” killings that very little discussion of the actual morality is allowed for. The presence of so many elongated monologues allows for very little discussion at all.
Steven Roy’s direction is competent but he does very little to save the play. Drowning is littered with inconsistent motifs and poor pacing. It comes across stilted and disjointed, underpinned by pop hits that do nothing to up the tempo of the writing. There is a lack of variance, a lack of real engagement with the humanity of the characters.
The poor execution of Drowning is a crying shame. It is a daring concept but lacks interrogation and real exploration. Not only that, but there are some stunning design ideas and occasional moments of something approaching the sublime. Ultimately the production seems to require more development. There is an amazing work of theatre in there somewhere, the company simply haven’t found it yet.
Drowning is playing the Pleasance Above at the Edinburgh Fringe until 25 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.