The Greatest Wealth: Sister Susan at the Old Vic online
An ode to a pre-Thatcher NHS, Dervla Kirwan portrays Sister Susan, a nurse with an immense love for her profession, in 1970s: Sister Susan – part of the Old Vic’s series The Greatest Wealth, written by Moira Buffini and directed by Adrian Lester.
In 1970s rural Ireland, Sister Susan says, women either became wives or nuns. She fled, therefore, to England to become a nurse, for which pay was low but rewards were tremendous. Nursing entailed genuinely caring about human beings and “Dignity was our highest value” – about “respecting others’ suffering” and doing your best to relieve it. With three children and the death of her spouse, she was alone but lucky to find a job with no shifts and weekdays only.
As a “dialysis sister” Susan was adept with needles: “I’m a heroin addict’s dream”. Specialising in treatment for kidney failure, she calls it the best job she ever had, because of the relationships nurtured with her patients. With detailed descriptions, she emphasises their importance as individuals. She chastised a man who was furious that he was ill and refused to be dialysed: “Your girls still have their father and you should bloody well keep it that way!” She describes her fondness for her patients and the heartbreak of a 14-year-old girl who did not make it.
Depicting a 1970s NHS as one where benevolence was paramount, Sister Susan laments the tragic changes brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the early 80s, through which “the health of the people had been replaced with the health of the pound” – a state that she says has been in place ever since as “Britain’s highest law”.
Enacting the role of Susan with naturalness, tenderness, wit and humour, Kirwan is deeply convincing. There is only a bare stage – apart from a sign language interpreter – appropriate, as full focus is on the speaker.
Originally run at the Old Vic Theatre in 2018 in honour of the 70th anniversary of the NHS, The Greatest Wealth is an invaluable series of very human and entertaining monologues about this vital institution. Kirwan’s 1970s: Sister Susan warms the heart and opens the mind to a supremely compassionate health system that existed at the time. Decrying that Thatcher’s power “starved the NHS of oxygen”, her final poignant words hit home: “but it doesn’t have to be”.
Image: The Old Vic