Week 0 is never a production’s first pick for their time slot, but this term I am incredibly excited to see what the first week of the term’s theatre has to offer.
‘The Phlebotomist’ was Ella Road’s debut play, and in 2019 it would go on to be nominated for the Olivier Award. It explores a dystopian future, similar to our present, in which society is divided by blood ratings, where everything from breast cancer to disruptive tendencies can decrease your blood rate and thus, your social standing. We follow Bea (Eirlys Lovell-Jones) as she falls in love with Aaron (Thea Melton), and her friendship with her best friend, Char (Charlotte McCarron), is put under pressure. All of this is interspersed with video clips from a real Tory minister, and adverts from this potential future. The play promises to be an exciting look at a world we are dangerously close to sleepwalking into.
Getting to sit down with the cast and crew of the show was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon; what struck me was the passion the directors, Lily Isaacs and Elena Pare, had for the story they had to tell. We discussed how relevant this story has become since the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was acutely aware that whilst we were discussing these themes of medical testing and restrictions, we were surrounded by posters and stickers encouraging mask wearing, social distancing, and vaccinations. Lily commented: “Covid has made it feel a lot more tangible in today’s surroundings. In scenes where we’re discussing the risks of your actions impacting your health and therefore your standing in society. I think that is a lot more relevant now than it had been in a usual time…”
She later went on to say “I think before Covid it would have been quite easy to say that nothing like this could ever happen, society would never change that much to cater for people’s health. You’d never see a poster like that before Covid,” she points to a poster encouraging students to take part in Covid testing, “But this would be the same kind of message as our blood testing [in the play]. Before covid it would have been a lot easier to deny the plausibility of a world that is determined around health.”
Elena added: “It’s really really touched me, this play. And I wonder – I feel like before Covid it might not have had the same effect, because it might have not felt as relevant to me personally, and the moral questions I have at the moment, and have been having, actually, since the beginning of the pandemic. It feels like it has had that big impact which it might not have otherwise.”
Lily was keen to point out that the play should not be interpreted as being anti-medicine or anti-vax. “It’s posing something much more complicated than Government versus Big Pharma, or something like that, and more about how we value different members of society, and whether or not we should be valuing anyone in different ways.” I agree with Lily completely on this; in the past 2 years we have seen multiple high-profile instances of disabled people being treated as expendable, or something to be studied. During the pandemic we saw teenangers and children with learning disabilities were unlawfully offered ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders, or even had them placed upon them without their or their family’s knowledge. Within Cambridge itself, the noted psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, already controversial for previous research, launched the ‘Spectrum10K’ project which aimed to find a gene for autism. This caused a lot of anger within autistic communities, as many worried that were such a gene to be found it could lead to the exact same kind of genetic testing and discrimination we see in ‘The Phlebotomist’.
As with many dystopias, these personal stories and connections between characters are really what drives ‘The Phlebotomist’. Being a week 0 show, the cast have been having an intense week of rehearsals, as they quickly get to grips with the play. Eirlys reflected that, “In terms of understand characters and their motivations, it’s really made me consider honesty in terms of – not even just with each other but with yourself; how do you really feel about this person, or is it just what this person can give you that you’re idealising.”
Thea reflected on this saying “It makes you think about when people say ‘Oh I have a preference for…’ and I guess this makes you deep those preferences. Like, what is it about certain characteristics in those people that you’re valuing, is it good to value those certain things. This play, even though it can relate to current contexts a lot, if you look historically, in every society there’s been specific characteristics like hair colour, body shape, eye colour, skin colour that’s made some characteristics valued higher than others. So I guess, although it’s set in a modern dystopian context, I think it can relate to lots of different scenarios and past societies.”
There’s no doubt that ‘The Phlebotomist’ handles some really heavy themes, but there is lightness there too. When I asked the cast what they’ve enjoyed most about doing the show so far, Kitty, who plays a caretaker called David, said “The explorations of character have been really nice.” and noted it was good to have such a relaxing atmosphere, a sentiment which was echoed by Thea, who said it was probably the most chilled out play she’s ever been involved in.
The cast were wonderful to meet and watch rehearse, and it was clear that everyone was having such a good time; despite their small amount of rehearsal time, the cast were already really embodying their characters, and I cannot wait to see this wonderful group of people put on what promises to be an astounding and important show.
The Phlebotomist is on at the Corpus Playroom from the 18th-22nd of January. Get your tickets here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/the-phlebotomist/