‘Blood bags swing in the central section … Death certificates litter the stage floor throughout.’
There is an eye-catching stainless steel angel outside the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service centre in Ellen’s Glen Road, Liberton, barely four miles south of the Traverse. There is also, facing Reception, a rust streaked 40 cubic yard capacity waste skip. Factor 9 shows us what happened when, in 1984, contaminated blood product did not end up in the bin.
Injury, pain, hurt and a raging sense of injustice is how writer Hamish MacDonald sees it. His script could have taken on some late gothic horror, as in Stevenson’s Olalla, but that is torpid and exotic compared to the energy and ghastly proximity of Factor 9.
Dramatic, genuine, testimony is given by two haemophilia sufferers, Rab (Stewart Porter) and Bruce (Matthew Zajac). Together, but occasionally taking different parts along the way, they tell the story of their lives. In medical reports and studies they are classified as ‘Unfortunate individuals’ who were exposed to that single batch of HIV contaminated factor VIII concentrate from Scottish donors. Rab would have been a ghillie but now only drives into the hills to scream insults at the view. Bruce tried to be a nurse but is thrown off his course – and onto the streets – as an unacceptable infectious risk. He has a recurring hopeless dream of taking a hammer to water and trying to smash his way out of all-enveloping misery. Bruce has, in his words, become shockproof: “Fucking unfortunate?” No, try “Fucking incredible”.
“How could this happen?” is the furious and tendentious question that fronts Factor 9. Director Ben Harrison and Designer Emily Jones get the answers out in impressive and surprising order. Visual, contextual information is screened on the grid squares of a threefold set. Important dates and locations clearly register, not least the security fencing around the Arkansas state prison(s) where donor prisoners are paid for their blood, some of it infected with viral hepatitis and HIV. White symbols turn red when, of those 32 patients in that 1984 cohort, another one is ‘away’. A lab bench wheels into use as a bed. Utility chairs are in the Waiting area where Rab and Bruce and their families spend a horrible amount of time. Blood bags swing in the central section and the names of drug companies – notoriously IG Farben and latterly Hoechst, Armour, Baxter and Bayer – are indexed above. Death certificates litter the stage floor throughout.
Actors Porter and Zajac are utterly convincing. You see Rab and Bruce briefly, innocently, having fun in the Children’s Hospital when their parents have gone home for the night but otherwise, as stigmatised plague-carriers and guinea-pigs, it is their outright, unequivocal anger that registers. Rab knows magic tricks and the vehemence of his ironic “Abracadabra” when significant medical records just disappear is punishing. Zajac also plays the haematology consultant and actually wins sympathy for a professional who, grappling with the uncertain and the unknown, finally does not know what to say. The scene when an anatomical skeleton is substituted for the doctor and ‘examined’ by his patients is ingenious and macabre.
Factor 9 is properly more than a tongue-lashing for pharma. Neither is it a pitiless exposee of medical practice in the face of an emerging pandemic within the haemophila community. It is much better than viral polemic because of terrific performance and inventive direction. In the House of Commons the Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill waits for its 2nd Reading. This Dogstar Theatre production should introduce it.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 24 April)