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The Comedy of Errors

Jos Bitelli’s The Procedure at Nottingham Contemporary

17 June 18 words: Natalie Mills

Healthcare gets the Black Mirror treatment in Jos Bitelli’s hilarious, hard-hitting talk show

How bad could it be if we lost the NHS? Jos Bitelli has created a performance personifying the bad taste of putting a price on healthcare. The Procedure portrays a future where clients choose clinicians in a Blind Date-esque television show – and we are the studio audience. On a kitsch stage reminiscent of breakfast TV, we see a world where they “dole out smiles as medicine”.

As a maniacally grinning man encourages us to clap and smile for the cameras, our host Fionnuala graces the stage. Dressed to match the saccharine pink set, she drowns us with cheeriness and creates an illusion of live television by interacting with the film crew. Also introduced is Anna – the client and “actress” who pretends to have symptoms for clinicians to treat. It’s already getting Orwellian, with a computerised voice reading out Anna’s vital statistics (such as her fitness for work) and Fionnuala saying, “We caught up with her to see what she had to live for”.

Anna explains a vague collection of symptoms to Fionnuala, and fusses about not disclosing an incident she had when she was six. Cosy on the sofa, they coo over Anna’s first book – which is mostly about waiting at home for hospital rejection letters. It’s all Saturday morning fluff as Anna makes a joke about her father’s dementia. You get a hunch her positivity is misguided.

From the three stools on the opposite side of the stage, you can see where this is going. Clinicians 1, 2 and 3 talk passionately in turn about how they’re running for local MP, how they’re single, and what their hopes and dreams are. Aside from a few cryptic statements, like "People who really need us don’t get the help”, medical skill is barely mentioned. The Procedure cheapens healthcare to garish entertainment, while simultaneously making it elusive and always out of reach.

We’re then treated to a short break. A stagehand tidies the ever-smiling Fionnuala's hair as she admits, “This is the closest I’ve been to anyone in months”. Her bizarre Healthcare History of Boots – which involves smashing a bottle of White Heather perfume – adds to the absurdity. Anna comments on the show so far, "They do seem very nice, and so does the perfume".

The Procedure cheapens healthcare to garish entertainment, while simultaneously making it elusive and always out of reach.

The three clinicians are finally grilled with some real healthcare questions, which they're asked to respond to with empathy and compassion. Problems like hospital bed shortages or finding colleagues asleep return flaky, noncommittal answers. "You have to make every decision... with care...", and the sort of empty statements you hear on PMQs. They're evidently trying to distract from a lack of any substantial healthcare, or that the providers have all become bankrupt. Anna takes being repeatedly neglected and fobbed off surprisingly well, saying only "Impressive".

The Procedure ramps up into farce, as confusion breaks out over who Anna has actually chosen to treat her. A fight ensues, a stool is knocked over, and Anna shouts that "There's nothing wrong with my fucking wrist!", as she's pulled and prodded by The Holistic One. It gets across the despair of not being listened to; the anger of dealing with a health service starved of skill and resources.

Lastly, before the lights dim and Fionualla unceremoniously fucks off, we're shown a video of Neil – the fictional creator behind The Procedure. Once again, we're left mystified and unsatisfied by his enigmatic, patronising ramble about anything but healthcare and medicine.

Billed as a talk show discussing the "unique and compelling reasons for embarking on the life-altering journey of exploring personal experiences of healthcare", it's a worst-case scenario we don't want to face. A biting visual metaphor for auctioning off public healthcare to the highest bidder. It deliberately misunderstands the purpose of healthcare – helping people to get better – and replaces it with hollow, theatrical spectacle. With headlines about our NHS being brought to its knees and a lack of young doctors and nurses, The Procedure is a bitter pill to swallow.

The Procedure took place on 9th June at Nottingham Contemporary

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