“If I am a storyteller, it is because I listen,” said the late John Berger. Listening is at the heart of A Fortunate Man, Berger’s 1967 account of the work of a rural Gloucestershire GP, John Sassall, created with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr.
Sassall was a man who listened too. He was the repository of his patients’ stories as he went about his rounds being “the registrar of their births and secretary of their deaths”. He gave his patients time, and he gave them care, and he did it with infinite care. In the entire book he speaks no more than 365 words because he is busy listening.
Mostly what he murmurs is: “I know…I know…” It’s not an expression of all-seeing godly power but rather of empathy. Sassall understood their pain because he shared it. Fifteen years after the book was published Sassall shot himself.
In the book Berger’s words and Mohr’s photographs stalk and reflect back off of each other, offering a series of different perspectives and different ways of seeing the same thing. Michael Pinchbeck’s delicate staging of A Fortunate Man (Summerhall, until 26 August) does the same, and it too does it with care.
At the end of the book there is a photograph of Sassall climbing a hill with his back to us. He is on his way to his surgery, but it also looks as if he is walking out of the book, perhaps out of life itself. Pinchbeck’s coolly restrained production, which takes the form of a lecture – and rather neatly is performed in Summerhall’s Demonstration Room where so many dissections once took place – also offers ambiguity of image.
A woodsman, cared for by Sassall after a tree fell on him, lies amongst the leaves, a branch by his side. But we also can’t but help see Sassall himself on the bathroom floor, the branch transformed into the shotgun he used to end the pain he could not cure. He even took care with his death: shooting himself in the bathroom so there was less mess.
Summerhall’s Demonstration Room is also the venue for Gary McNair’s After the Cuts (until 26 August), a short, very sharp tale about ordinary people pushed to the limits in a future that “is much like the present, only shittier”.
It’s 2042 and Agnes (Pauline Knowles) and James Baxter (George Docherty) are already struggling to make ends meet when Agnes discovers she has kidney cancer. The NHS has been privatised, seeing a doctor is charged by the minute, and Agnes’s health insurance is not at a level that will provide her with the care she needs. Desperate times require desperate actions and James thinks that he might have the solution.
This clever grisly morality tale is both entertaining and shocking. “This is not a story of innocence and guilt,” says James at the start. But it is, because it shows the consequences and impact of what happens when you take a great thing like the NHS and sell it off piece by piece. The question James and After the Cuts asks is: did we have to make it so easy for successive governments to do so?
This privatisation is already well underway as Mark Thomas details in Mark Thomas: Check-Up – Our NHS at 70 (Traverse, until 26 August). Richard Branson has won £2bn worth of NHS contracts in the last five years. Two billions pounds a year is also what the private finance initiative (PFI) costs the NHS every year. It is, as one leading healthcare professional tells Thomas “privatisation by stealth.”
Check-Up is meticulously researched by Thomas, who spent time in GPs’ surgeries, operating theatres (always eat a banana first) and interviewing policy-makers, but he spins what might be dry into an engaging and informative 75 minutes where anger and humour bounce off of each other to good purpose. It is as if Thomas is trying to arm us, the audience, so we don’t end up like Agnes and James Baxter.
Thomas puts forward the startling statistic that if you get on a central line tube at Holborn life expectancy drops a year for every station as the train moves East. That health inequality is just as true in Edinburgh as is made clear in Where It Hurts (Summerhall, until 26 August), a piece by Jeremy Weller and the Grassmarket Project in which non-actors share real life personal stories. Edinburgh streets, just a mile apart, have a difference in life expectancy of over 10 years.
What Where it Hurts makes abundantly clear is that for all its flaws and failings the NHS is still the net that many people rely on, not just a place of last resort but also a place of safety. Weller’s no frills, tell it straight from the horse’s mouth production invokes both a drama club meeting and the waiting room of an A&E department on a busy night.
People start to reveal themselves and their stories – the abused woman for whom hospital is a refuge; the psychiatric healthcare worker who ends up as a patient in the hospital where he works, the woman who when asked by a nurse where it hurts touches her heart – and fights break out and tears are shed. It is sometimes hard to watch, subverting the model of what we often think of as good theatre.
This is messy theatre which deliberately reflects the messiness and chaos of people’s lives, and an NHS increasingly under such pressure that it can only patch people up because it no longer has time to listen.
“I used to think I was paid to care,” says a doctor towards the end who now feels that he is “paid to administer care, to perform a role”. He’s having none of it. “I will not perform care,” he says fiercely, “because I do care.” Just as that country GP John Sassall did 50 years ago.
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