The story of a country doctor

We showed a work-in-progress of A Fortunate Man yesterday at the National Rural Touring Conference at Nottingham Lakeside Arts. It was always the intention to tell the ‘Story of a Country Doctor’ (the subtitle to the 1967 book by John Berger and Jean Mohr that inspired our show). In the current climate, we felt compelled to talk about the way doctors work today. 50 years since the book. 70 years since the NHS. The project asks how they balance meeting patients with meeting targets and weaves interviews with GPs into text inspired by the book. We project visuals from photographers who visited regional surgeries as part of the project and archive footage from Media Archive for Central England of doctors practising in the 1960s.

bucketBerger tells us that ‘To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it’. As pointed out by Dr Jo Robinson, who chaired the panel  on The Importance of Place at the conference, there are multiple, overlapping landscapes at play in our project. The landscape of the Forest of Dean where Dr Sassall practised in 1967. The landscape of the NHS today in the East Midlands. The landscape of the book itself as a model of interdisciplinary collaboration between Berger and Mohr. The landscape of photography – each scene is subtitled by a stage in the photographic process. And the landscape of the stage. We are attempting to inhabit these different landscapes. The project enacts a conversation between words and images, a writer and a photographer, a doctor of the past in 1967 and a doctor of the future now.

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At the conference, Sophie Motley, director of Pentabus told me that with rural touring, as long as the story is clear then the form can be more experimental. I want to explore this further in our rehearsals as at the moment it feels like our storytelling is as experimental as the form. As in most devising processes, we are still finding the story we want to tell. We are taking as our mantra Berger’s words ‘If I am a story teller, it is because I listen’. In the spirit of Berger, we will listen to feedback from the showing and the GPs we have interviewed, some of which were there yesterday. We will share work-in-progress at different stages of the process. Working with 12 emerging artists has meant that we have generated a lot of material, beyond the scope of the book, and of a one hour show. Now the job is to edit what we have into the final version.

cof IMG_2649EDITWe hope to tour to experimental theatre venues as much as rural touring venues. We hope to show the piece in doctors’ surgeries and village halls where doctors might still meet their community. It is our intention to exhibit some of the images not used in the show as a touring photography exhibition that visits venues alongside the performance. They have been used on the New Perspectives blog too. We are using images from the book in the show, projecting them onto medical screens to give the effect of flicking through its pages. There is a scene early on in the piece (Portraits) where we re-enact some of these photographs onstage. The doctor is seen raising his hand in a village hall at a community meeting. A farm hand is photographed holding a bucket in the middle of a field. A couple are seen dancing at a social gathering. An elderly woman stands to greet the doctor in her home. She is smiling.

cof IMG_2648WEBEach time these images appear a different performer introduces these motifs into the physical choreography and they are repeated throughout the show. At the same time, the soundtrack plays interviews with doctors today about their job. When we present the final version of the show, these connections will be made clearer. Some people were unsure about where these gestures came from and I am keen to make our reference points easier to navigate for those who have not read the book. This is an attempt at staging a book that is difficult to adapt as there is very little dialogue in it – the doctor only says about 360 w0rds. The patients are silent. The main narrative is Berger’s philosophical meditation on the role of the doctor. It is abstract and non-linear like our show and to do it justice and to bring it to life, it feels like we need to evoke the landscapes it describes. As Berger says at the beginning of the book:

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The theme of the conference was ‘Being Bold’ and it was great to show work-in-progress in this context. As Lyn Gardner said at the conference, ‘Some of the best small scale theatre in this country is happening in village halls’. I hope that next year, to mark the anniversary of the NHS, we present our show in this vital and important touring sector. I hope we are ‘being bold’ in the story it tells and the form it takes. I hope we are able to shine a light on the book for those who have not read it yet. I would like it to feel immersive and invite the audience to play the patients in our story. The community the doctor serves, both in 1967 and today. Just as he is the archivist of their stories, so we now are the archivist of his story. Berger wrote ‘That any story drawn from life begins, for the storyteller, with its end’. As one audience member said after our show ‘It made me want to read the book – you should sell it when you go on tour’.

Images: Julian Hughes