“I am not a bad person”. The nurses responsible for the deaths of at least 49 patients at the Lainz Hospital waste no time in protesting their innocence. Seeking to understand more about the women behind these murders, Drowning pledges to explore their mindsets and backstories, but “not the why”. Creating four characters from composite research of female murderers currently behind bars, Jessica Ross presents a group of almost unbearable clichés who spend an hour unpacking the predictable life traumas and circumstances that have led to their status as killers.
A disappointing piece to see programmed in such a prestigious space.
Ross’s excavation of these women sadly sticks closely to what we might expect. They are not psychopaths – they say they believe their work stopped suffering – but then they really do appear to enjoy it. There is no nuance in the characterisation, nothing that we haven’t seen committed to screen a great many times before. Starting out with the day to day of hospital work and criminal activity, the second half sees the nurses break out of scenes to soliloquise. Over-explaining their respective traumas – child abuse, adulterous spouse, suicidal single motherhood – these sections are not written or delivered in such a way that builds any sort of empathy or emotion. There is something interesting in that these lost souls gravitate to a comforting saviour, a leader in Head Nurse Waltraud, but again this is wasted by explanation of her own motives. Though Ross claims not to explore “the why”, she spends a great deal of time doing just that. But there’s a step missing. The weakness in Ross’s writing is to leave out how these traumas lead to the extreme action of murder.
There are gems of intriguing ideas within the script, but sadly they are utterly bulldozed by Steven Roy’s heavy handed direction. The staging is hardly inventive, and movement between scenes is anything but slick. Using 80's pop hits in the transitions sets an inappropriately upbeat tone that is so difficult to get on board with – because a connection to the characters has never been constructed. The actors too have been directed with a wildly aggravating tone in mind. Presumably afraid of naturalism, Roy creates a highly stylised and grossly melodramatic setting that severely inhibits enjoyment. Words that should be meaningful or imbued with emotion are instead wasted as increasingly alienating drivel.
The acting style of this show is quite closely reminiscent of the way the inmates perform in Chicago, proudly and almost inhumanly showcasing their terrible deeds. But there, the over the top performative nature is necessary because of the jazz club setting. Here, the exaggeration distances these women from the reality of the situation, which is strange considering that the show is marketed on the fact that it is based on true events. The result is something far closer to an old fashioned American soap opera than anything theatrical, a disappointing piece to see programmed in such a prestigious space.