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Theatre Review: The Waiting Room

22 June 2015
Appeared in BioNews 807

The Waiting Room

By Kylie Trounson

Produced by Melbourne Theatre Company

Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne 3004, Victoria, Australia

15 May-27 June 2015

'The Waiting Room' by Kylie Trounson, Arts Centre Melbourne, 15 May-27 June 2015


It takes an ambitious and courageous playwright to take on the challenging and emotive subject of IVF. Some may even regard it as foolish to delve into a topic that combines science, religion, politics and ethics. But this is exactly what playwright Kylie Trounson (daughter of IVF pioneer Alan Trounson) and director Naomi Edwards have done in The Waiting Room.

Situated in Melbourne, Australia, the play gives its audience an insight into the contentious issues and lives of those involved in IVF, in both 1978 when IVF was in its infancy, and 34 years later. It opens with a couple Zoe (Belinda McClory) and Raf (Brett Cousins), involved in a passionate love-making scene, which we learn is as much about a desire to procreate as it is about the passion itself. It is not long before the procreative urge dominates and the journey into the world of IVF commences.

We meet Professor Carl Wood, played by the brilliant William McGinnes. Wood's presence is imposing and we observe in him a wonderful combination of brilliance and eccentricity. Together with his partner Alan Trounson (Greg Stone) their IVF endeavours are unfurled. Their passion to help infertile couples is initially portrayed as selfless and altruistic, but as the play unfolds we question whether they are in fact selfishly striving to be gods, creators of life.

Trounson introduces a multitude of ethical issues. The discussion about whether it is unethical for individuals not to be encouraged to accept their infertility was thought-provoking. However, for most of the play the many ethical issues raised were so minimally delved into that, at times, the play was reminiscent of an end-of-semester summary in bioethics. For example, the dilemma as to whether it is unethical to provide false hope to patients was proffered without ensuing deliberation. Many of the complex moral issues were also presented closely intertwined with a religious perspective, making it hard to untangle the ethical issues from the uniquely religious ones.

Many actors in the play are given multiple roles, and this complexity is further compounded by the introduction of the characters of Eros, Galileo, Aristotle and even God. I felt their appearances to be unnecessary and again an example of Trounson's endeavour to condense as much information as possible on infertility and IVF into her play. As a result the fluidity of the play was interrupted and intensely emotional scenes were unnecessarily intruded upon.

Trounson gives her father's most vocal critics - feminist and academic Robyn Rowland (Kate Atkinson) and outspoken and controversial bioethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini (William McInnes) - prominent roles. This is refreshing as their views are justly considered and deservedly valued.

She also uses humour in an endeavour to reach out to her audience. However, at times this seemed inappropriate, and its flippant use detracted from the intensity of the emotion that she should have first and foremost been trying to convey. For those of us who have sat in infertility waiting rooms, scenes of joviality and conviviality are not instantly recalled!

Undoubtedly, the scene that was the most poignant and had the most emotional impact was at the end when, years later, Alan Trounson goes to visit his old friend Wood. Wood is a pitiful sight - infirm, in a wheelchair, and obviously suffering from dementia. To see what has happened to this 'great mind' is truly sobering. This once physically and emotionally powerful man, who had used science to triumph over nature, had now succumbed to dark forces that science could not overcome.

Trounson has provided an unbiased account of the issues associated with IVF. She has strived not to produce a fairytale ending, and has endeavoured to address the many dimensions of IVF, but inadvertently she has imparted too much information and created a chaotic cacophony of characters, facts and perspectives. If this play had been simplified, and been less cushioned by humour, the audience may have been presented with a more realistic glimpse into the lives of those affected by IVF. Furthermore, they may have been left with a desire to further contemplate ethical issues. The 'Frankenbabies' resulting from 'test tubes' have failed to emerge as predicted, but differing views on the whole artificial procreative process will never entirely abate. Plays such as 'The Waiting Room' have an extremely important role in helping inform the public about these contentious issues. The information must, however, be imparted in a succinct, thought-provoking and accurate narrative, and I feel this play has failed in that goal.

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