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Theatre Review: Things That Matter

We might take it for granted that if we get sick or have a serious accident our health system will take care of us and the treatment will be state of the art and free. But Aotearoa New Zealand’s health system is struggling, and depending on who you are and where you live, you might not necessarily get the treatment you need or deserve. 

That is the truth. It is also part of the plot of Things That Matter, a play by Garry Henderson based on the memoir of Dr David Galler who was an intensive care doctor at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital for 30 years. 

The play opens with the hospital facing crises  – it is understaffed, over capacity, there’s a junior doctors strike and toxic mould in the building. With an election looming, budget cuts are happening, but the patients keep on coming. 

Dr Rafi Beckman (Ian Hughes) manages the emergency department and is constantly under pressure both as a physician and as an advisor to the Minister of Health. On the side, he is also caring for his mother Roza (Donogh Rees) who is dying of cancer.

Scenes change between the hospital, the minister’s office, and his family home. We meet patients and families as they come in for treatment. We meet the doctors and nurses who are doing their best to treat people and having to make life and death decisions. 

We are also privy to awkward and at times heated discussions between the staff as they weigh up treatment ethics and when is the right time to stop treatments when resources are scarce and the system is overburdened. 

Through these scenes we get a sense of the constant trade-off between public perceptions, political expediency and the personal impact disease and trauma have on health workers, the patients, and their families. 

This is definitely a play with political overtones. It exposes the attitudes rife within our communities towards preventable diseases and the link with obesity. But these links are shown to be complex and involve poverty, capitalism, and systemic racism. The answers may seem simple, but in reality they are anything but. 

At the heart of this story is Rafi’s own family. His parents were Polish-Jewish, and his mother Roza (Donogh Rees) survived the Holocaust. She has a deep distrust of doctors which began with meeting Josef Mengele at Auschwitz. Both Rafi’s mother and his now deceased father Leon (Greg Johnson) provide a supportive and loving home life for Rafi almost as a deliberate antidote to the childhoods they had lived through. 

This is a remarkably well staged play. The interchangeable sets with real hospital equipment, simple plastic curtains delineating rooms, and movable venetian blinds creates a very dynamic and versatile stage. The entire production is very slick and very well managed. 

The cast is also equally slick. Rafi is the central figure and also narrator of the story and Hughes brings a flawless mana to the role. Johnson and Rees literally embody Rafi’s parents convincingly, and Rees re-enactment of her encounter with Mengele is heartbreaking and intensely moving. 

The entire cast delivered potent and heartfelt performances which are at times gripping. Jen Huang, Nicola Kāwana, and Shaan Kesha brought a compassionate and human face to their roles as medical professionals and a deeply emotional portrayal of the ethical dilemmas they encounter day to day. From the patients families, both Seem Filipo and Elsie Ropati gave strong emotional voice to the pain and suffering that occurs in the health system and in Ropati’s case, the need for accountability to the needs of cultural diversity in the health system. 

As I have mentioned, the Holocaust is woven into the narrative, and Roza’s story is a testament to the love David Galler had for his mother and her values, but it also stands as a metaphor and warning. The horrors Roza and millions of others experienced in the holocaust are almost incomparable to anything experienced since. But those atrocities were enabled not just by government and soldiers, but also by ordinary people who were indifferent to the suffering of others, or convinced that they themselves were just ‘doing their jobs’ and someone else was responsible for their actions. Most chillingly, they were complicit in the slaughter because they saw the victims as ‘others’ – people who were ‘less than’.

The play is not comparing Auschwitz to Middlemore, of course not, but it is saying that indifference kills, poverty kills, racism kills. And that is something that cannot be ignored. 

Things That Matter is a stunningly hard hitting and challenging play that is at times damning but also filled with tenderness, compassion, and beauty. What it so articulately shows is that humans can choose between the dark and light within ourselves. It is a piece of work that should be seen by everyone no matter their political affiliations. 

THINGS THAT MATTER

12 – 27 August 2023

Tickets and information 

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