The Nottingham Creatives Bringing the NHS to the Stage

21 August 17 interview: Hazel Ward

Fifty years ago, John Berger and Jean Mohr brought the world of a rural medical professional into the spotlight with the book A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Now, theatre-maker Michael Pinchbeck and photographer Julian Hughes have been developing a creative project based on the book. Working with New Perspectives theatre company, alongside a team of writers and visual artists, the pair have been taking another look at doctors, exploring just how much the NHS has changed over the years through their new theatre production A Fortunate Man...

photo: Nigel King

How did the project start?
Michael: It was Jack McNamara at New Perspectives who approached me as he was interested in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the book, A Fortunate Man, in 2017. It’s a dialogue between images and words, and a photographer and a writer, so it made sense to work with Julian – a photographer and long-time collaborator – on the project. It’s also the story of a country doctor: that’s the subtitle of the book, so we’re looking at doctors in rural areas around the East Midlands. We’re asking several questions here: How has care provision changed? How has the NHS evolved? How do doctors balance meeting patients with meeting targets? How do they heal?

How will the collaboration between you and Julian, and the teams of emerging artists, work?
The specific focus that Julian and I will have is the question of how to stage the book. We’ve already done some work writing fragments of text that capture the spirit of the book, but we’ve also turned some of the images into theatrical scenes. There’s not very much spoken dialogue at all. Our challenge is to bring it to life, so we’ve been exploring the idea of making the audience the patients, and the performers the doctors.

Essentially, Julian and I will be telling the story of the book through images and photographs, whereas the emerging artists will be reflecting on the NHS today. Each of them will bring their findings from surgeries in Derby, Nottingham or Leicester to the process.

Julian: Not that we split it directly down the line, but Michael worked with the writers and I worked with the photographers. We decided to pair up an artist and a writer, and send them off to different surgeries in Nottinghamshire.

What are you hoping participants will get out of the process?
Michael: I’m finding working in collaboration with photographers exciting. I do a lot of work with theatre-makers and writers, and it’s one thing doing a workshop for writers where you sit around and write, but when you’ve got photographers in the room, words aren’t everyone’s first language. Like Jean Mohr said, some of the images in the book move the story forward several pages because they contain so much information. We’re really playing with the conversation between the paragraph and the photographs.

You gave blood in front of two of the artists, Julian. How was that?
Julian: I’ve been giving blood for quite a while, but I’m not used to turning up with a writer and photographer. I had to explain to the nurses that I was with these two ladies who were going to photograph me and write about it. It took a bit of explaining. I felt like a bit of a celebrity.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the NHS right now. Will you address that?
Michael: I think if that’s going to be part of the show, it needs to come from the doctors and GPs we’re speaking to; I don’t think we can impose that kind of politics upon it. Perhaps it will emerge that way when we collate the material we’ve been given, and if we have the necessary permissions to use it. Fundamentally, I think the reason a lot of doctors and care providers read this book when they train is because they want to deliver a level of personal care, and to help and heal people in the way this doctor does.

I think this story is more about the celebration of what the doctor in the book achieves. It was never the case to try and find any faults; it’s just to observe. It’s new for people to take an outside eye, rather than turn up to have a check-up or go to the walk-in centre because you’ve injured yourself doing DIY. It’s interesting to see what you would learn if you spent time with nurses, or spoke to patients.

Newspapers aren’t sold on stories of positive experiences...
Michael: No. Working in the NHS is a pretty thankless task. What John Berger and Jean Mohr did was draw attention to one man’s practice, how much he gave, and how much he was drained by it. There’s this sense that he invested so much of himself that he spent his spare time building a garden with members of the community; he was constantly serving the community in a way that doctors today are, and maybe we don’t recognise that enough.

How do you think the book is still relevant today, and what’s changed?
Michael: We’re looking at this book through the lens of fifty years, thinking he’s a traditional country doctor but actually a lot of what he does, and the way that he practices, is quite forward thinking. And the fact that he opened up this practice for this writer and photographer to follow him around suggests that he was willing to share his tools and techniques with the wider world. We’re trying to allow that same openness for doctors today, to show how they care. It’s normally a private, intimate space.

We have this responsibility to talk about intimacy – this contract between a doctor and the patient – but also how the politics have changed since then. It’s a very patriarchal book, but we’ve got a female-heavy team working on the project, so we’re interested in challenging that. I’d like to speak to as many female doctors as male doctors, and have a lot of female voices in the soundscape to address the gender politics within it.

Julian: The book has been a staple read, so I’m interested to find out if GPs and young doctors are still reading it and how they feel about it. It’s an idealistic approach to having your own village as a practice, which doesn’t really happen anymore.

How will this all take shape on the stage?
Julian: You’ve got art practice and you’ve got the medical practice, and then you’ve got what’s on stage. So it kind of works as a coalition between those two landscapes, but also landscape as in rural setting – where the book is based – and the urban setting in which the artists will be doing their fieldwork. Each surgery will have its own little portrait, you could say.

Michael: It’ll be a mixture of written text and the images. I’ve written something that’s part slideshow, part adaptation, part political manifesto; hoping to pull back the curtains on the doctor’s surgery to reveal the state of the nation’s health and maybe even the state of the NHS today. It’s also a tribute to the old, traditional country doctor that perhaps doesn’t exist anymore in the way that in the sixties, the doctor would make home visits, whereas doctors don’t really do that now. It’s also a tribute to Berger and Mohr and the fiftieth anniversary of their book. Finally, it’s a tribute to the doctor who died, John Sassall.

A Fortunate Man is in the final stages of development, and you can track its progress by visiting the New Perspectives website.

New Perspectives website

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