“I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.” – Office Space
Written in 1964, Tom Stoppard’s short play A Separate Peace has a resonance today in ways that even the author couldn’t foresee. At a private hospital in the country, John Brown (David Morrissey) turns up in the early hours of the morning, for an ‘emergency’ that necessitates him being there. However, it soon becomes apparent that there isn’t anything physically wrong with John. But as he is pleasant and has plenty of money to pay for a room, what harm is there?
For someone who just wants to have meals in bed and do the bare minimum, John’s presence has the hospital staff flustered. Those perturbed include Nurse Jones (Maggie Service), the Doctor (Denise Gough) and Matron (Ed Stoppard). However, the person that John feels most at ease with is Nurse Maggie Coates (Jenna Coleman). She likes him for who he is and genuinely wants to help him. However, even she has pressure from above to glean any information about the inscrutable ‘patient’…
L-R: Maggie Service, Denise Gough and Ed Stoppard
With regards to the consternation of the health professionals, one would be forgiven for thinking that the play’s focus is about the ‘abuse’ of resources in hospitals, even in the private sector. However, this isn’t what the play is about. Instead, it’s thought provoking in a subtle fashion.
What makes A Separate Peace so timely is the way it challenges the reactions to the current pandemic lockdown and the ‘need’ by some to still ‘keep busy’. John is happy to stay put indoors and lead a sedentary life. Moreover, he’s learnt the almost intangible quality of ‘being’ – to enjoy the ‘here and now’ without the need to be perennially active or be at everyone’s beck and call.
L-R: David Morrissey and Jenna Coleman
The play also raises the question of the importance of human connection, of family and of the right to live life on one’s own terms. In the case of John, from the little that we glean, there is little attachment to his family – on an emotional level or mutual history. His ‘epiphany’ as a younger man during the Second World War may be a factor in this. Then there’s the possibility that he needs ‘downtime’, away from the demands of life. Only if he asked ‘permission’, it would never be ‘granted’…
Be that as it may, as in the case of his relationship with Maggie, natural ‘connections’ with others are unplanned without agenda. And constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating or being ‘present’.
© Michael Davis 2020
A Separate Peace was broadcast on 2nd May as the first play in ‘The Remote Read’, an innovative series of live streamed virtual play readings.