Posted on 21 April 2020.

Posted in: Interviews with cast and creatives


On a knife-edge: Tiger Country lays bare the ferocity of life in the NHS


Urological surgeon Jyoti Shah recalls how she inspired the character played by Indira Varma in Nina Raine’s gripping play – streaming until 10pm on 26 April

'Tiger country” is a term we use in surgery. When you operate near a big blood vessel, you’re in dangerous territory and we’d say: “Careful, you’re approaching tiger country!” It’s an apt title for Nina Raine’s play, which shows hospital as a wild place, almost like a war zone. Tiger Country is a fast-paced, gripping drama with many interwoven storylines. This is what a day in hospital is like, with all its everyday dilemmas.

'Nina did her homework and shadowed me for months, eventually basing the character of the urology registrar Vashti on me, which was an honour and slightly surreal. The play is acutely observed, down to the music that we play during surgery. That’s when the hierarchy comes out: if I’m operating I’ll insist on 70s and 80s songs and we’ll bop along and banter as we operate. If our patient is awake we might include them in the discussion. I’ll always remind them I’ve got the knife in my hand!'

'Nina dispels myths about the NHS, such as the idea that surgeons are uncaring beasts who just carry out operations. Yes, we can be abrupt but we are meticulous and methodical. She shows the tender side of surgery when Vashti tells a patient he is dying and then comes out and bursts into tears. You can’t cry over every encounter because there are so many, but we do have human responses to trauma, illness and death. One of my patients recently died, and when I got home that night I cried to my husband about losing a patient. You have to build your own defences and learn to cope with those emotions. In the play, Emily is told, “Try not to care so much,” and there is a reference to patients being slabs of meat. These are coping methods to depersonalise the situation. The day I stop caring I’d have to stop doing the job because my patients deserve my emotion.'

'No amount of experience or training could have prepared anyone for what we’re facing with the coronavirus. Where would we be without our NHS today? My heart goes out to all those people who are suffering. The play has a line about the NHS creaking along on goodwill, with staff working longer than their contracted hours. Never has that been more true than now. Everyone has stepped up and is working so hard in the NHS. I hope people remember that when this is all over.'

To read the full review visit The Guardian online here.

Tiger Country streams on the Hampstead Theatre and Guardian websites until Sunday 26 April 10pm. 


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