Dogstar Theatre Company: Factor 9
Eden Court, Inverness
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THE timing of Dogstar’s play Factor 9 about Scottish haemophiliacs infected with HIV couldn’t be more perfect as Scotland tries to decide if it’s got the balls to be a nation or not.
Surely no country would treat its citizens with the contempt that’s been shown to those Scots infected by NHS transfusions in the 70s and 80s, then subjected to silence, lies, cover-ups – some campaigners also believing their phone calls and mail have been monitored?
Yet, already given half a chance, Scottish politicians have largely managed to turn their backs. Those campaigners driven through frustration at lack of progress to protest in its showcase multi-million pound building a few years ago were hauled away and fined, though it’s true the results of the Penrose inquiry – set up to look into the matter by the Scottish Government – are to be announced later this year.
But Factor 9 has a worldwide story to tell, of the scandal, greed, corruption, injustice, conspiracy and horror that created the events that have impacted on two men, Edinburgh’s Rab Mackie and Highland resident Bruce Norval.
Yet the emotional response and boiling rage that Hamish MacDonald’s powerful writing in the play creates is anchored by the personal stories of these two, whose lives have been juggernauted off course through no fault of their own.
Their fight to find out what happened to them also uncovers the final twist in the tail. Not content with infecting them, the NHS and one of its doctors colluded with an American study to use – as human guinea-pigs – some of what the Edinburgh medic coldly refers to in the play as "unfortunate individuals" to find treatment for the HIV virus. But it’s without telling them, thereby putting their families at risk of contracting AIDS. It’s still not known how many did – or how many died as a result.
And it’s not until you know all of this that premiering the show at a festival of horror – part of the European Capital Of Culture celebrations in Swedish city Umea earlier this year – makes proper sense.
There are many moments in the play that chill the blood as you try to imagine what Bruce and Rab have been through.
There is a lot of information the play has to get across to the audience.
To do it, Dogstar uses its signature combination – used so tellingly in earlier production The Tailor Of Inverness – of multimedia and multi-storylines. So, for example, a backdrop of screens is topped with a rolling number counter to add up the dead – over 2000 so far in the UK. The production uses a tinny impersonal voiceover to relay the responses from uncaring officialdom. So, as part of one compensation settlement offered, the words "… or if you are already dead, you will be awarded £50,000" made the audience laugh, one of many moments of well-used black humour.
Four stories alternate in short scenes – Rab and Bruce’s stories in flashback and the present, what went on inside American jail where blood plasma was harvested from inmates for money and fourthly, the wider story of the human experiments begun in Nazi death camps, links with giant drugs companies and the "Nuremberg code" made after the war crime trials to ensure no future medical research would be done without patients’ consent.
The play opens with two prisoners "donating" their blood in an Arkansas jail , then we meet a young Bruce recalling early treatment as a boy for his haemophilia in hospital, part fun, part fear, later his desperate times in London once the virus hits and he’s not allowed to continue nursing, Rab discovering that the drugs to treat episodes inflicted by the virus make patients mad. Rab and Bruce meet at a protest outside the Scottish Parliament, Rab tells how he discovered that he and his relations were unknowingly being used for research in an Edinburgh hospital, the cover-up – and throughout, there are regular micro-scenes as Rab phones Bruce to relay the news of another death, the number counter above their heads clocking up another tragedy.
It’s to the credit of Dogstar that the audience is asked to take in a lot quickly without being overloaded. The strong performances of both Matthew Zajac as Bruce and Stewart Porter as Rab keep the audience emotionally locked in. And the emotional punches keep coming.
On-screen we see a green Highland glen where Rab had hoped as a younger man to pursue a career as a ghillie. Now he drives there to scream into the emptiness.
Early on, the boy Bruce fishes from a jetty, desperate to hold the line in his hands where a fish struggles, knowing that to keep holding the line will mean he will bleed profusely and have to be taken to hospital but he hangs on, still determined to reel in the fish. It gets away, but throughout the play, in nightmares, he returns with the people responsible for his infection becoming the quarry. He hangs on, refusing to give up as the consequences of the infected Factor 9 roll out like widening ripples across his life.
"All we ever asked for was the truth and we’re going nowhere till this story is told," Rab vows near the end of the play.
After the standing ovation at Factor 9’s Saturday performance at Eden Court, the audience left almost in silence, letting the injustice – and horror – sink in. In real life, for Rab, his wife Alice and Bruce, the horror lives on. Onstage, an anguished Rab shares his fears with Bruce: "Are they coming for me when I’m dead … to cut me open for ‘ground-breaking’ research when I die of AIDS?"
Thanks to a Kickstarter crowdfunding project, it’s hoped the play will return to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August after its one performance in the city later this week.
The Dogstar team with clear, unfussy direction from Ben Harrison have made Factor 9 an unforgettable, high quality and hard-hitting play spotlighting a story of national importance. It also deserves to be seen across the world because it dramatises a global tragedy – tens of thousands have died so far.
A scandal of its own is that Dogstar – long-established, consistently exciting, innovative and reaching out across the world to Europe, Australia and Scandinavia with stories mainly of our lives and communities here in the north of Scotland – still does not receive core funding. It lives a hand to mouth existence, only funded project by project.
The results of the Penrose inquiry come out later this year – six years on – so Scotland has one last chance to remind those like Bruce and Rab what justice means. The story behind Factor 9 is a bloody smear across the blue and white of Scotland’s Saltire and it’s a play every Scot – in fact everyone everywhere – should see.
To find out more about the Kickstarter campaign to take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe, go to: www.kickstarter.com and look for the tagline Factor 9: how could this disaster happen?