A Fortunate Man – Process
I have been working with New Perspectives on a new version of A Fortunate Man for touring to Camden People’s Theatre in June and Edinburgh in August. We are now showing a work-in-progress at Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger, a conference at the University of Greenwich. Commissioned by New Perspectives, the show will mark the 70th anniversary of the NHS and 50 years since A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr was published. Using archive film footage and contemporary reportage the piece is part slideshow, part documentary, part adaptation, and both explores and explodes the book. I have also been interviewing doctors today and people connected to the book and its subject, Dr. John Sassall.
This is a unique adaptation of a ground-breaking publication and was made in collaboration between writers, photographers and doctors from the East Midlands region. Berger’s words, Mohr’s images and verbatim text from interviews today are woven together to create a powerful and poignant tribute to doctors and the NHS. Two people take to the stage. A lecturer and someone who will read the footnotes. They become other characters. A writer. A photographer. A doctor. They tell the story of how the book came to be using words and images of Berger and Mohr. They tell the story of what happened to the doctor after it was published. They ask what changed since its publication and take the pulse of the NHS today.
We learn that Berger and Mohr lived with the doctor for six weeks while collaborating on the book and 15 years later the doctor took his own life. We learn that doctors do not take lunch breaks. We learn that they aim to see every patient within 10 minutes. We learn that patients do not always go in to see their doctor 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 learn that it takes the same time to process a film as it does to give a pint of blood. We learn that the conversation is still the cure in a lot of cases and some patients just want someone to listen to them. As John Berger said, ‘If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen…’ We learn that when Dr Sassall was consulting his patients, he would tell them ‘I know’ to reassure them.
We learn 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 learn that doctors do not really want to talk about politics today but we cannot avoid our show being political. We learn that to understand a context we have to situate ourselves in it. We learn that doctors love what they do. When asked to name the best thing about the job they tell us it is the people, the patients, the place. We learn that they want to make a difference to people’s lives.
There are two main narratives. The life of Dr. John Sassall, culminating in his suicide in 1982, and the story of a doctor’s daily routine in 2017. These stories are woven together so we are able to compare and contrast the ways in which doctors worked then and now. The end of the book is the start of the show and we see the doctor’s life played out in flashback, from his last days as a barefoot doctor in China to the first page, driving down a country lane to tend to a man crushed by a tree. The branches of this tree grow through the show like the arteries of a heart. We visit Dr. Sassall’s surgery, a waiting room between 1967 and now. We visit Berger’s notebook and Mohr’s darkroom. We attend a lecture on the book using verbatim text, images and interviews. There are two acts: Landscapes and Portraits. We see doctors today struggling to balance meeting patients with meeting targets, and wrestling with the pressures of the 21st Century. As Dr. Sassall says ‘I sometimes wonder how much of me is the last of the old traditional country doctors and how much of me is a doctor of the future. Can you be both?’
There is a slideshow for the project here.
Image: Julian Hughes