The Greatest Wealth: Rivers at the Old Vic online
“My landlady has got this stupid dog, an Irish wolfhound called Finley. Which is odd because she has a notice in her window saying ‘no Irish, blacks or dogs’. I bet she said to him: ‘I didn’t mean you Finley, I meant all those other Irish wolfhounds, you know, the smelly dangerous ones that bring chaos and disease. But you’re not like that. I mean, you’re hardly like a dog at all, are ya?’”
Originally performed in 2018 for the 70th anniversary of the NHS, the Old Vic’s series The Greatest Wealth is made up of eight monologues, each exploring a decade in the life of the National Health Service. Rivers is set in the 60s, the era of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech – which, as is pointed out in the monologue, is ironic, as he spearheaded the recruitment of overseas health workers as health minister in 1963.
Rivers explores the experience of an Indian midwife living as a “stranger in a strange land”. It uses humour to describe the subtle and not-so-subtle racism she experiences from the women she’s trying to help. This ranges from calmly answering one woman’s racist questions – “we call them turbans, not bandages” – to having to placate another who demands she “choose the colour of her midwife” and “wants an English midwife in England”, to which the protagonist responds: “This is a hospital, not a pic and mix at the local Odeon.”
The stage is sparse – a table is used to represent the birthing bed, while a clothes horse with black and brown clothing stands to the left. The protagonist is dressed as a 1960s midwife in a white pinafore over dark top and trousers. The set design is all it needs to be for this piece, which is centred around Syal’s superior acting skills and her carefully chosen words. The script is full of rich metaphors: “the lifeblood flowing out of her. All of us standing in rivers of blood”.
Syal, who wrote and performed this monologue, gives a strong, heartfelt and believable performance, effortlessly swapping between accents and carrying on one sided conversations with the table. She makes us laugh and cry in less than 20 minutes and has managed to create a three-dimensional, multifaceted character who leaves a lasting impression.
The monologue is set in the 1960s, but it feels so relevant for today’s society, where many healthcare professionals are still treated with disrespect. In 2020, overseas nurses who migrated to the UK still had to pay a fee to use the NHS that they worked for – and it wasn’t cheap. This fee was scrapped in March, but it’s astounding that, 60 years on from when this monologue was set, the world hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think. This is an impressive and important piece of theatre that should not be missed.