In Austria, four nurses, dubbed ‘Angels of Death’ confessed to killing 49 patients in the 80s. It is believed that they may have murdered as many as 200. Their motives for killing the patients were never revealed, and as of 2008, all four have been released from life imprisonment on grounds of good behaviour.
Directed by Steven Roy and written by Jessica Ross, this production attempts to explain the motives of the nurses. Whilst this is entirely fictional, it draws heavily upon the facts of the case that are known. The nurses killed their victims by drowning – they pinched their noses and poured water down their throats forcibly. As the patients were old and had fluid in their lungs anyway, their actions were hard to prove. Each of the nurses presents the story of their life. And as each one unravels, the unfairness, the trauma, the despondency of it all is evident. A pattern begins to form, one that seeks to explain their behaviour. In particular, Waltraud and Irene’s stories are heart wrenching and tragic.
Their stories are dark. However, there is enough humour in the script to balance that out. Irene keeps stealing valuables from some of the murdered patients. She justifies this because her husband ‘does not buy her anything nice’. The script draws on some anecdotal background as well, like the case of the ‘thalidomide babies’. The set design is very innovative. Bathtubs are used to cocoon each of the characters at the start, and also, upside down, as hospital beds. Mention also must be made of Aurora Henning who plays Maria. She has the most melodious and haunting voice.
This is a fine piece of theatre. It is not what you expect at all from reading the blurb, which can mislead some viewers. The play is pitched as a documentary style exploration of the human mind. In reality, it is more of an experiment that seeks to explain some plausible reasons and motives. And there is also the problem that none of the stories are proven in any way. For all we know, the pure motivation of the nurses might have been one of playing God or unleashing evil. This production, simply by trying to form a backstory, humanises their crime. Whether or not that is moral is a different matter, but it definitely makes for very interesting theatre.