The most disturbing part of Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution is the relevance its main themes have today. Set in a psychiatric hospital at the time of the Algerian war of liberation from colonialism, it explores the cognitive aftermath of torture on both victims and torturers, and the moral obscurity under which all this takes place – think Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
Since it was penned in the early 70s, the play has remained unperformed until its world premiere at the Finborough Theatre in London this April.
Churchill’s piece draws on the work of Frantz Fanon, a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, revolutionary and author, whose work The Wretched of the Earth is largely considered definitive in subject. A psychiatrist in the 50s war for independence in Algeria, Fanon eventually resigned so he could join the Algerian National Liberation Front.
His writing does not only inspire the script, but Fanon (Miles Mitchell) himself features in the play. Head of the psychiatric unit in an Algerian hospital, he listens to a series of disturbed patients, all tangled up in the revolution, unload their experiences of war and colonialism onto him.
A father and French civil servant “who brings his work home with him” (that is victims to torture) and his wife attempt to have their daughter Francoise admitted as being insane, refusing to listen to her. She is clearly perturbed at what is happening around her, convinced they are trying to poison her.
Two Algerian patients languish in the hospital, one a self-absorbed, paranoid patriot, the other a revolutionary. A prop, in the shape of a life-size elderly patient, offers an unusual and slightly bizarre twist to the set of characters. Another character is a French policeman so distressed about his role torturing Algerians for information that it has spilt over into his home life as he becomes uncontrollably violent towards his wife and daughters.
As the characters bare their souls to Fanon, it is not only the psychological repercussions of torture or colonialism on the consciousness that are on display. It is also the frame of mind in which they place themselves in order to justify their actions as oppressors.
Francoise’s parents, for example, are defensive and unable to see beyond their interpretation of reality. When challenged by Francoise, they believe her simply to be against them. Casual racist, or ignorant remarks enforce the idea that they must protect themselves from the “savages” or Algerians, in a manner reminiscent of the governments of apartheid South Africa and present day Israel.
Although the play was deep in meaning, it was flat in performance. Perhaps it is the fact that it started out as a radio piece, or that it took 40 years to reach the stage that accounts for its drawbacks. The 90-minute performance was generally quite drawn out and tedious at times; though the play makes a clear statement about oppression, and delves head first into the themes of racism, colonialism and psychiatric illness, its way of doing so is far from subtle at times.
But obvious though they may be, many of the issues raised have certainly proved to be timeless.
The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution is playing at the Finborough Theatre until 16 April
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.