After A Fortunate Man
On 6 September 2018, I was invited to deliver this paper on A Fortunate Man at TaPRA hosted by the University of Aberystwyth. The theme of the panel was ‘landscapes’.
Staging Landscapes, Turning Pages: The scenography of A Fortunate Man
‘To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it’
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)
To mark its 50th anniversary, I was commissioned by New Perspectives Theatre Company to write and devise a new show inspired by A Fortunate Man; the 1967 book by writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr. Offering an in-depth study of a country doctor who, after years of caring for people took his own life, the book has been widely hailed as one of the most influential texts ever written on the subject of medicine, treatment and care. Using archive film footage and contemporary reportage, the production is part slide show, part documentary, part adaptation. Text and images merge on screen to evoke the landscape of the book, and a sense of the time and place that it depicts: The Forest of Dean in the 1960s.
A projection on an old medical screen shows shifting Black and White images taken by Jean Mohr, while onstage two performers read a text colliding Berger’s words with those of doctors today. Objects are brought onstage to ‘colour in’ the context and bring Berger’s book to life. A performer toasts bread to chime with Berger’s description of English Country mornings. A tree branch is bandaged at one point to signify a woodsman who is crushed by a falling tree. Leaves are scattered and pages of books are torn out and by the end the stage is littered with the detritus of the story. Shredded paper to signify the overworked NHS. Golf balls to represent the doctor’s hobby – he used to hit golf balls into the Forest of Dean from his garden. The stage is deconstructed like the life of the man who inspired the book.
A Fortunate Man’s scenography aims to replicate turning the pages of the book, where images and text are in dialogue. As Berger said: ‘A book has to advance on two legs. One being the images. The other being the text’. For this reason, images and text were carefully considered to resonate rather than illustrate, make associations and open up meanings, rather than fix or restrict, or close down an audience’s reading of the work. There are three acts to the performance, all written on the blackboard: Landscapes, Portraits and X-Ray.
Landscapes: A sense of place, setting the scene, 1967, the NHS, then and now.
Portraits: A sense of people, the patients, the doctor then and doctors now.
X-Ray: A sense of what happened next, Dr. Sassall’s suicide and its aftermath.
For this paper, I retain the three-act structure and show images of the production and video footage we used onstage to capture the book’s aesthetic. Often images are slowly zooming in or out to reveal more. As Jean Mohr said ‘If you don’t like the image, go closer’. This paper attempts to ‘go closer’ and explores Berger’s concept of understanding landscapes by situating ourselves within them and reflects on the aesthetic, philosophical and ethical concerns we had in seeking to adapt the book. This was the greatest challenge, adapting a book that has very few spoken words (the doctor only says about 365 words and often Berger and Mohr show him at work rather than telling us what he says). As such, we sought to show rather than tell. The first third of the book features case studies of the doctor meeting patients, the last two thirds shift towards Berger’s philosophical meandering around the topic. For this reason, I chose to frame the performance as a lecture about the book that becomes the book, where lecturers become characters e.g. The doctor and his wife.
For this paper, I address the central research questions: How to stage the pages of a book? How do representations of landscape on stage relate to understandings of place? I suggest that understanding of landscape is mediated by technology to create a virtual palimpsest of the rural and the urban, an axis between the analogue and the digital, a vanishing point between landscapes and portraits. As Berger wrote in the opening pages of A Fortunate Man.
‘Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for a life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with the inhabitants, are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal’.
Act One – Landscapes
It was with this idea of a curtain that we began, the first scenographic decision involved the medical screen, which acts as both surface for projection and signifier of the NHS. A border between private and public and a metaphor for the barriers that some patients put in place when they meet their doctor. This is joined by other objects that signify a medical aesthetic and perhaps even a place where medicine might be taught in order to support its framing as a lecture. A blood pressure machine, a stethoscope, a blackboard and chalk. A doctor’s medicine bag. The first image we project onto the medical screen is from the preface for the book, the doctor is walking through the door, half inside, half outside, somewhere between coming and going. After introducing the book and the fact it was described by the British Medical Journal as ‘still the most important book ever written about General Practice’, we ask the audience to close their eyes and take them back to the Forest of Dean in 1967.
Please close your eyes.
‘We are in 1967. There is a low sunrise and the trees are silhouetted against the horizon. The occasional farmhouse meets the sky with smoke from the chimney from the day’s first fire. A procession of pylons score electric lines against the clouds. There are early birds drinking from puddles in the unploughed fields. Drawing muddy water through cracks in the ice. It is January. A thick frost covers the ground and cows stand with their backs to the winter sun after another night huddled together for warmth. Through this landscape a river runs, its waters rise and fall, and meander around this place. Berger will tell us that the bend in the river reminds the doctor of his failure. But more of that later. We haven’t met him yet. We are picturing the scene. Birds sing. The church bells ring. Another day begins. A boat floats on the river. Two men, one old, one young, fishing. Their lines cast upstream. Their images reflected in the water. A fence runs across the field mapping the farmer’s territory. An electrical pulse runs around the wire to stop the cattle from getting too close. In the distance, two hills rise, dodged and burned, to play with perspective and depth of field. And in the centre of the image. A house. Where we are now. Where the doctor is. Where we wake up.’
Now please open your eyes. To understand a landscape, we have to situate ourselves in it. When the audience open their eyes, they see a slow pan of the countryside on the screen. Contrast this with the last image we project and we see the doctor walking up a hill towards a house. Berger and Mohr reversed the image so it looks like the doctor is walking out of the book. Walking towards his fate. Somewhere between living and dying. As Mohr suggested of their collaboration, an image could speak pages of words, this image speaks the most. In later editions of the book, this image is followed by the afterword in which Berger writes:
‘When I wrote the preceding pages. I did not know that 15 years later he was going to shoot himself. His death has changed the story of his life. It has made it more mysterious. Not darker. I see as much light there as before. I do not search for what I might have foreseen and didn’t. Rather I now begin with his violent death. And from it, look back with increased tenderness on what he set out to do. And what he offered to others. For as long as he could endure.’ A careful reading of the book reveals its title to be a paradox. The man who spent his life helping others was unable to help himself. The doctor is somewhere between a doctor of the past. A doctor of the future. A doctor of yesterday. A doctor of tomorrow. As he says at the end of the book. As we see him walk towards the final page: ‘Whenever I am reminded of death. And it happens every day. I think of my own and it makes me try to work harder’. Berger tells us in the Secretary of Death that: ‘A moment’s reflection shows us. That any story drawn from life. Begins, for the storyteller. With its end’. And so, in our performance we tell the audience about The Afterword at the beginning.
Act Two – Portraits
A Fortunate Man, like the book that inspired it, wrestles with the fact that the doctor of the title took his own life, and in doing so questions how fortunate he really was. This process of painting his portrait involved talking to NHS GPs today and the doctor’s family. It also involved choosing key scenes and images from the book that told us more about him – the way he holds a woman’s hand as he treats her on the examination table. The way he sits holding a cup of tea in an old lady’s house. The way he raises his hand at a parish meeting and everyone else in the village hall is watching him keenly, with respect, with admiration. As we stage this montage of images, each performer ‘dodging and burning’ the movement so photographs from the book are brought to life, we hear doctors today using simple phrases about why they choose to practice as GPs: ‘The best thing is the people, the place, the job’, ‘The best thing is that we get to meet people’, ‘You see people’s lives that you help’.
At the same time, we are portraying Berger and Mohr and how the book came to be. There is an exchange in the show, taken from an interview with photographer Jean Mohr in the Guardian. He says of their collaboration: ‘From the outset, our relationship was perfectly balanced. As a condition of publication, we retained the right to the book’s layout.The position of text on the page.The position of pictures within the book.The combination of text, page turn, and picture.The relationship between paragraphs and photographs’. It was this line about ‘The combination of text, page turn and picture’ that felt to me some kind of dramaturgical instruction, to use text, movement and image and direct the audience’s attention to the ongoing dialogue between the written word and the visuals, just as the reader has to navigate it in the book. This was the dramaturgical driver of the process and even the fact that the screen was Stage Right and most of the text delivered Stage Left resembled the placement of image and text on the page. This device is most apparent halfway through Act Two: Portraits when the performers describe all of the images in the book by page number.At the same time, a video of the final image is shown panning up from a dry-stone wall towards the sky as the doctor ascends the hill in the last photograph.
Pages 1-2 -There is a car racing down a country lane in landscape
Pages 3-4 – There is a man holding open a door, between coming and going
Pages 12-13 – There is a boat with its line cast near the place where he fished.
This scene hurtles towards the description of the image shown on the screen.
Act Three – X-Ray
Act Three becomes more forensic, drawing on Berger’s writing about bones and a diagnosis of the Doctor’s bipolar disorder which contributed to his decision to take his own life. He had tried self-medicating and also volunteered for EMT, Electro-magnetic Therapy, which he described as ‘a tremendous weight lifted from the brain’. EMT defined this act’s aesthetic as the video images became more distorted as if due to electrical interference and the soundtrack started to resemble an electric current – a reference back to the electric fence in Act One. A Fortunate Man was a hybrid of written script and devised movement and at this point we had moved off-script to give the book a devised coda. In Devised Theatre, Alison Oddey writes, ‘The devising process needs to be searching, the work constantly sifted, re-examined and criticised. Group analysis is required, which leads back to self-examination. The strength of devised work is in its method of working and of giving significance to the process itself.’ The devising process for this project searched, sifted, re-examined and criticised the source text and sought to walk the audience through its pages and take a journey beyond the book. The process was given significance by this forensic search.
As part of this devising process it was decided that everything that was brought onstage should stay onstage. At the beginning of Act Two, a roll of grass is unfurled. At the beginning of Act Three, a roll of lino. The tree branch. The leaves. The pages of the book. The shredded paper. Are all left where they are placed. Props like cups of tea and packs of playing cards are also discarded on the floor and become part of the cartography of the show, a palimpsest of scenes, or pages that have turned. As Mike Pearson says ‘Performance is a saturated space’ and by the end of the show, the stage is so full of objects and their histories that there is nowhere for the performers to stand but at microphones downstage.
The visual aesthetic of the images too become distorted and warped to mirror the deterioration of the doctor’s mental health, and following 55 minutes of monochrome footage, we project a slideshow of colour images of the NHS today, soundtracked by GPs talking about how they balance meeting patients with meeting targets and how Dr Sassall, as a one man practice, might have struggled within a more fragmented, contemporary NHS. There are gear shifts here between the words of doctors today and Berger’s account of Dr Sassall’s breakdown. The challenge was to tell his story without losing focus on the book. As such, the lecture format enabled us to snap in and out of demonstrations using direct address and technical cues e.g. slide please etc., to ensure we were never in one world for too long. It enabled us to blur naturalistic modes of acting with detached re-enactment. At one point, a performer goes from crying as a patient to narrating her own case study.
These were the ‘cogs and pulleys’ of the piece. As Adam Alston writes in Beyond Immersive Theatre, “… audiences enter ‘experience machines’… enclosed and other-worldly spaces in which all the various cogs and pulleys of performance – scenography, choreography, dramaturgy and so on, coalesce around a central aim: to place audience members in a thematically cohesive environment that resources their sensuous, imaginative and explorative capabilities as productive and involving aspects of a theatre aesthetic.” This was especially true when the performance was shown at Summerhall in Edinburgh in the Demonstration Room, home to veterinary surgical procedures and medical lectures.
The lighting design for the piece drew attention to the surgical aesthetic, starting with orange tungsten light and shifting towards pale green, an anaesthetic colour, chlorinated, disinfected, the same colour as the medical screen, the surgical trolley, the easel and the lino. It was as if the designer sought to clean the space with light. If there was a colour-palette, it was 1980s NHS, the era of Dr Dassall’s suicide. By the end, the audience see a broken man, barefoot in the leaves, surrounded by golf balls, about to pull the trigger in a final and fatal demonstration and the lighting and set have the stark, cold detached colour of the bathroom in which he killed himself. According to his son, he went there so the mess could be more easily cleaned up – and it is exactly this mess which the detritus of our set seeks to represent. The bandaged branch becomes the broken man. The medical screen becomes the bathroom wall. The leaves scattered around his head, the pool of blood surrounding his supine body.
Berger wrote that ‘every story is a rescue operation’, by telling the story of A Fortunate Man, the man who was the central protagonist of the narrative, and the men who chose to put him there, we were undertaking our own form of rescue. Perhaps seeking to pay homage to a man who had become marginalized in literary history. Though Berger would go on to win the Booker prize and become renowned as a writer, art critic and philosopher, Dr Sassall, the subject of this seminal book, talked about it with regret rather than fondness. His family suggested he felt he couldn’t live up to his portrayal as an exemplar of care. After his wife died, and he lost his job, he lost his will to live too. Doctors today say: ‘The conversation is the cure’. Berger told us ‘that he cured others to cure himself’ and perhaps when there was no more conversation to be had, as a doctor, there was no more cure.In the 50thyear of the book and the 70thyear of the NHS, it was timely to go on this journey to find him. He was the registrar of births and the secretary of deaths. He was a fortunate man. As it says in the final scene of the performance: ‘Only he knows how many pages. You have left to turn. How many words there are left. Before the book is closed. And put back on the shelf.’ Thank you.
Images: Julian Hughes