How to account for the four Austrian nurses who murdered up to 200 patients in the 1980s? It is an act of such unfathomable cruelty, it seems futile to try. It would take an Ortonesque farce to come close to that kind of darkness, or at least a subtle analysis of the incremental nature of evil, such as CP Taylor’s Good. But that hasn’t put off playwright Jessica Ross from trying to make sense of it all.
Maybe, she postulates, one of the nurses was a battered wife; maybe one was a neglected single mother; maybe one had suffered a family tragedy; and maybe one was a lesbian (because, as we know, lesbians are always murdering people).
Well, yes, maybe they were all of those things, but as there are plenty of abused, neglected and traumatised women who haven’t killed 200 people, it hardly explains anything. If these were mercy killings, we’d need more information. “There’s more than one way to show mercy,” says one nurse at the end, as if there was some kind of moral ambiguity in which killing 200 people were OK. On this evidence, “No, there isn’t,” is the only answer.
The ethical argument aside, the dramatic novelty of killing people wears thin, so Ross falls back on what David Mamet calls the “death-of-my-kitten” speech, a retrospective soliloquy that delays the action before the denouement. Except she has lots of them. Directed at a soporific pace by Steven Roy, each of the four actors takes a turn running through the cliches of pill-popping/hard-drinking/bereaved women as they describe their domestic lives. But however earnestly they perform, this true story lacks the ring of truth.
• At Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, until 26 August