Review of Protocols at the Club Theatre at RADA Studios

By Carmel Shortall

ProtocolsThe title of this 90 minute play by Ricardo Dujany refers to the protocols governing orthodox cancer treatment or management. Aside from surgery there are drugs, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and any combination thereof with which the cancer – and the patient – are bombarded.

But not everybody is happy to subject themselves – or be subjected – to such treatment and consequently there exist alternative protocols and it is the battle between these opposing sets of protocols, as it is fought over the body of Mary Louise Stephens, that the conflict of the play arises.

The play opens with Paul preparing salad for Mary. They have history but are no longer a couple. As Mary plays with the knife, she reveals that she has news – recent tests have confirmed aggressive breast cancer. Paul is a naturopath and wants to advise her on diet: Mary’s response is to order a triple-cheese pizza with extra sausage.

As Mary embarks on her seemingly never-ending rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery, as she goes through remission and relapse until she cannot even walk, she is fed a constant diet of pasta and sugary chocolate bars by hospital staff and her loathsome brother Sam, highlighting the almost total neglect of diet as a tool in recovery by the medical profession – even if only to ameliorate the detrimental effects of those aggressive chemical treatments.

Mary’s doctor is dismissive of her concerns and side-steps any questions she raises and, like so many, she just accepts this and goes along with a treatment in which she has no say other than to sign endless ‘informed consent’ forms agreeing to whatever side-effects the treatment will throw up. The doctor is so filled with a conviction that he is right that he cannot see anything else. He is a zealot with yet another bag of tricks or set of protocols up his sleeve every time the previous ones fail – except they never do fail for him – the statistics used to determine cancer ‘survival’ rates or ‘cures’ due to chemotherapy, for example, are subject to increasing scrutiny and criticism but this type of scrutiny or awareness does not come from within the cancer industry.

And does Mary even want to be saved – she says she does but as she subjects herself to the relentless punishment of chemo and radiation therapy, she is troubled by fevered dreams of a history of abuse – her sister’s – something that she blames herself for. It seems that Mary wants to be ‘normal’ rather than well: she somehow wants to redeem herself from some darkness in her past by being an inspiration to others in the present.

The staging of the play is very effective: the increasingly frail and bald Mary sits alone in the dark, looped and surrounded by the glowing tubes feeding poison into her body. The red flashing lights of her radiotherapy treatment and the background sounds of thunder, wind and relentless rain all combine to create a sense of doom and a brooding atmosphere, reflecting the storm within the frail body.

Protocols seeks to examine orthodox treatment and attitudes rather than advocate any particular alternative. It is a play about ideas, based on real people’s generic experiences of the cancer treatment system but there is a sense that Mary’s back story and personal motivations are secondary – even shoehorned in to the script to move the plot along – it needs tightening up and trimming to reach its full potential as a dramatic work. But even in its current format, it provides much food for thought and is important and brave. See it tonight or tomorrow at 8.30pm in the Club Theatre at Rada Studios, 16 Chenies Street. Tickets £10 (concs £7.50). Running time 90 minutes.

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