The Hospital by Norway’s Jo Strømgren Kompani is set in a remote hospital seemingly sometime during the Second World War (but not necessarily) where three nurses try to endure the lack of patients by injuring then performing their duties on themselves – the isolation engendering some troubling power dynamics (à la Lord of the Flies reimagined by Ionesco). As with previous productions, director Jo Strømgren aims to explore dance theatre forms with actors not trained in dance, disrupt genre conventions through dark humor, and continue the company’s exploration of nonsense languages, this time represented by what they describe as a “linguistic alias of Icelandic.”
This is an intriguing premise and there is much to praise in The Hospital. The opening prolonged image of two of the nurses leaning immobile in crisply starched, old fashioned uniforms against the dingy institutional walls is compelling. The dances that seem to function either as expressive release or semi-enforced ritual are evocative; a combination of abstraction with vaguely folkloric movement and strange small gestures that seem somehow familiar, suggestive of a nurse’s efficiency in many minute tasks.
Lighting design by Sephen Rolfe is atmospheric and one of the strongest elements of the production. Catrine Gudmestad’s costumes ingeniously draw on the combined associations of the old-fashioned nurse as both scary and sexy, and when the actors remove those smart white skirts, their slightly saggy white cotton underpants and bare legs brilliantly reverse the association and the nurses become both vulnerable and ridiculous. The music design, ranging from Donizetti to Nancy Sinatra (switched on and off with an industrial switch by the nurses), is likewise effective. Indeed, with such strong design generally, the minor wrong notes of an amateurishly painted cardboard box intended to represent an air-dropped crate and some less than convincing fake blood were surprising.
The actors move remarkably well, and if I frequently found the acting hammy, this was clearly Strømgren’s intent (and many of my fellow audience members didn’t seem to mind). Ingri Enger Damon does a virtuosic turn when she takes on the voice of a macho American soldier with no trace of a Norwegian accent and a deep gruff pitch that displays real vocal dexterity. Guri Galns and Gunhild Opdahl were equally strong.
And yet, for all the skill on display and apparent desire to be avant-garde, The Hospital is deeply regressive. The program makes note that The Hospital was, in 2005, Jo Strømgren Kompani’s first show with an all-female cast: “A surprise to many due to the rather masculine reputation of the company.” Their masculine reputation is firmly intact. Early on, the piece gives way to the incredibly retrograde trope of aggressive lesbianism within an all-female institution; a lesbianism which is naturally shown to be merely the result of the women’s sex-starved longing for “real men.” The cliché culminates in a weepy cat-fight as it is revealed that the adored “Wayne” apparently slept with all three woman.
The piece concludes with the women softly reciting the names of other longed-for US soldiers, reverentially pinning their photos to the walls. Even a final beautiful image of the three sitting, barely illuminated, on the bed with quiet whispering hands, could not quite redeem this tired and almost painful stereotype.
I am to some degree troubled by the international acclaim this production has received and can only hope that it stems from an appreciation of the stylistic creativity and artistic skill on display and not an acceptance of the ideology embedded in the work. Jo Strømgren Kompani clearly has much to offer. I simply hope they turn their artistry to more worthy themes.
The Hospital was on at Abrons Arts Centre. Click here for more of their programme.