Drowning explores the concept of mercy over murder as it depicts the story of four Austrian nurses who killed over two-hundred patients in the 1980s (dubbed the Lainz Angels of Death). Directed by Steven Roy and written by Jessica Ross, Drowning is inventively staged and tonally atmospheric yet can feel somewhat heavy-handed in its exploration of its female characters.
Four nurses recount their decision to begin killing terminally ill patients, with Drowning exploring their fractured group dynamic and dipping into the backstory of each of our four central characters – depicting lives of trauma and uncertainty.
From the synopsis it will be no surprise of the tonally dark territory that Drowning navigates. With a dimly lit stage and the main props being four free-standing bathtubs, we immediately get a sense of the eerie hospital ward where darkness lurks (think A Cure for Wellness). These tubs are inventively used – opening with each character being introduced lying in one in the opening act. A continually dripping sound-effect begins to hint at the theme of drowning that fills the play: nurses drowning in their own mental traumas, patients regularly being drowned as a means of execution by the nurses.
A pop soundtrack featuring Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, Madonna’s Like a Prayer, and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun attempts to bring some self-aware lightness to the proceedings – but when tackling subject matter so dark, this cheapens the production. Whilst the narrative progresses through this dark territory, it navigates through each nurse’s individual backstory attempting to shed some light onto what may drive someone to kill.
These individual backstories have a harsh, heavy-handed quality leaning too heavily on women as victim narratives. We see an alcoholic nurse, a suicidal nurse, a nurse who was the victim of child abuse, and a nurse who suffered psychotic trauma in her past. Whilst the idea of them reclaiming their power by becoming judge, jury and executioner is floated, there is an inherent simplicity in suggesting that these traumas lead to the women’s decisions. These simplistic, cliched excuses are lacking in the depth that the narrative desires. Drowning also leaves many questions unanswered: the nurses are seen with a baby – where does it come from? Where are the doctors, fellow nurses in the hospital? It can all feel a little disingenuous and unconvincing.
There are the nonetheless earnest and engaging performances on display from the four leads: Evelyn Edwards, Andrea Helene, Aurora Henning and Jessica Ross. Although lacking in depth, these roles are performed with conviction and passion by the play’s cast.
Drowning deserves plaudits for embarking into dark narrative territory, providing intriguing staging, and a female lead narrative. Yet the simplicity in its characterisation and too many questions left unanswered means that this piece of theatre does not engage like it should.