Last year, I attended two shows at the Melbourne Fringe Festival. The first was an interactive, semi-contemporary interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, which was fun (the characters served us tea and later made someone eat cold spaghetti) and starred impressive actors (they could sing, dance and backflip) but still felt like an amateur/student production – the actors appeared as though they were still learning, rather than having mastered, their craft. And since I hadn’t been to a Fringe show for a few years, I just assumed that was what all Fringe shows were like.
The second play I saw, though, showed me how wrong I was! Love in a Time of MRSA, written by Sara Nagorcka and directed by Peter Blackburn, was as professional as it gets and reminded me of the magic of theatre. Via a love story between nurse Amy (played by Julia Grenda), and Jack, her sometimes-boyfriend (Arthur Giamalidis) who has been hospitalised with golden staph, the play explores anxieties around the prevalence of MRSA (better known as golden staph infection) and the increase of antibiotic resistance.
MRSA, better known as golden staph, is a type of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics. The resulting infections are very hard to treat and often life threatening; the bacteria can spread within hospitals, and state health care systems both here and overseas have been criticised for failing to prevent to the spread of the infection.
Rather than pointing the blame at any particular party, Love in a Time of MRSA explores the complexity of antibiotic resistance by exposing the multiple factors that contribute the spread of the infection. Jack frequently blames ‘the government’ for not doing something about the rise of golden staph; Amy, whose father is a local MP campaigning against the spread of infections in hospitals, reminds Jack that the government is made up of individuals, implying that systemic policy change is difficult and potentially ineffective. The hospital staff, including Amy, go to extreme lengths to prevent the spread of the infection (‘they don’t allow ties anymore because they spread bacteria,’ Amy explains to a patient) but the patients keep piling up; there is also the vague suggestion that Jack may have encountered MRSA during his many overseas travels and brought it back with him. Furthermore, when Amy gives Jack the wrong dose of medication, things go terribly awry (she also panics and does little to amend the situation), and the implication is that individual error (rather than problems embedded in broader systems like health care or government policy) is also a contributing factor to the spread of the infection.
Jack’s journey with infection also functions as a metaphor for his relationship with Amy. At first, the illness is novel, and almost funny: he and Amy crack jokes about what country the shape of his infection looks like. Soon, though, it becomes more serious, and the small decisions or actions of one party can have serious ripple-like effects for the other. Even though Jack recovers from his illness eventually, the outcome of his and Amy’s relationship is not predictable, much to Nagorcka’s and Blackburn’s credit.
The play was staged in the kitchen of a church hall, which had white lino, tiles, a sink and exposed piping, making for a very convincing hospital setting. The dialogue was extremely natural and the acting impeccable (the play also starred Helen Bongers and Amanda Mackay), and the seriousness of the play’s themes was nicely offset by the script’s humour – each scene was very witty, and the character of Mrs Smith (Bongers), an old woman and golden staph patient, brought particularly light relief through her doddering political incorrectness. Mostly, I was impressed by the way Nagorcka’s writing and Blackburn’s direction seamlessly wove the elements of a complex social issue into a love story about two individual people. I look forward to what they bring us next.