In the darkroom
Last week we spent time in the rehearsal room at New Perspectives devising A Fortunate Man. It is a tribute to the book of the same name 50 years on from its publication. It is a tribute to its author John Berger who passed away in January. It is a tribute to Dr John Sassall, its central protagonist, who is torn between being an ‘old, traditional country doctor and a doctor of the future’. Our show starts with some archive footage from 1967 showing an old traditional country doctor doing his rounds in by horse and carriage. He says in his clipped, upper class accent that he can see up to 12 patients a day by travelling this way. It soon reveals itself to be a study of the NHS in 2017 when doctors are under pressure to see up to 36 patients a day.
Image: Jo Ferenczi
In total, there are 12 people involved in the project so far. Six writers/performers and six artists/photographers. Different people have been joining us on different days and at the same time pairs of writers and artists are visiting surgeries and health centres to gather research for the project. Taking pictures. Conducting interviews. Writing in waiting rooms. This has been a really interesting collaboration so far, working with artists from different art forms to respond to the book. As Jean Mohr said of his work with John Berger, ‘That spirit of collaboration is rare between a photographer and a writer.’ I have been collaborating with Julian Hughes, our photography mentor, to find the scaffolding for the show. We decided to use photographic terminology to structure the scenes we want to make. Contact is Berger and Mohr discussing the birth of their project. Focus is a series of audio interviews about what it is like to be a doctor today. Negative is the story of how Dr Sassall, a man who set out to help others, is unable to help himself. Development shows him catching water in buckets from a leaky roof.
Image: Julian Hughes
In the spirit of the book, we want the images the photographers have taken to be in conversation with words the writers have written during their visits to the surgeries. One of my favourite scenes so far features an acoustic piece of guitar music composed by Ryan (one of our writers) that soundtracks the text written by four of the team alongside a projection of images taken by our photographers. The images have been monochromed and formatted to look like the photographs in the book. Mohr and Berger ‘retained the right to the minutiae of the book’s layout. The position of the text on the page. The position of the pictures within the book. The combination of text, page turn, and picture.’ We want to be faithful to this relationship between the paragraph and the photograph. In a 21st century twist, we read these texts live on our mobile phones, ubiquitous in surgery waiting rooms, despite all the laminated signage informing us to switch our phones off. So, what have we learned so far?
Image: Mira Ho
We have learned that doctors don’t take lunch breaks. We have learned that they aim to see every patient within 10 minutes. We have learned that patients don’t always go in to see them with the condition that they really want to talk about so much of that 10 minutes is spent guessing what the real reason for their visit might be. We have learned that it takes the same time to process a film as it does to give a pint of blood. We have learned that the conversation is still the cure in a lot of cases and some patients just want someone to talk to, someone to listen. As John Berger said, ‘If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen.’ We have learned that when you project images onto the folding screens you find in surgeries it looks like pages in a book. We have learned that a photograph of unwashed cups in a kitchen sink tells us more about the NHS than anything we could write. As Jean Mohr said ‘… it became apparent that I could say with one picture what he could articulate only in pages and pages of words.’ We have learned that doctors don’t really want to talk about politics today but we can’t avoid our show being political. We have learned that to understand a context we have to situate ourselves in it. We have learned that doctors love what they do. When asked to name the best thing about their job many of them tell us it is the people or the patients or the place. We have learned that they want to make a difference to people’s lives. And they do. We have learned to listen.
This blog is also published by New Perspectives here.