In 1967, writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr published A Fortunate Man – The story of a country doctor based on the daily challenges of a GP in the Forest of Dean – Dr John Sassall. What they revealed about the life of a rural GP remains fresh and urgent in 2018 as we hear daily news about the NHS and try to imagine our future without it.
Now I am writing and directing a new show inspired by this vital publication to mark both its 50th anniversary and the 70th year of the NHS. We follow two narratives, the life of Dr John Sassall, culminating in his suicide in 1982, and the story of a doctor’s daily routine today – woven together to compare and contrast the ways in which doctors worked then and now.
In 1967, The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band. The last track is called A Day in the Life. It tells the story of a man who killed himself. We use this track in rehearsals to explore the way that doctors are constantly working under pressure, seeing as many patients as possible within their working day, balancing meeting people with meeting targets. We use interviews with practising GPs about the book’s value in teaching doctors.
There are interviews with family of the Doctor that inspired the book too – his son and son-in-law – who told me more about him than the book could and enabled me to try and paint a landscape of the place where Dr Sassall worked and a portrait of him, and his wife, Betty, who appears as a dedication in the book but is not in the frame. We have tried to approach her influence through a 21st Century lens and give Betty more of a voice in the show.
We have also tried to carry on where the book left off, filling in the years between its publication and the afterword, written in 1999, when Berger tells us about the doctor’s suicide. When you read this page, it casts a shadow over everything that has come before it and it is in this shadow that our story is told. A story of a country doctor. Of doctors today.
We are still working our way through a draft script in rehearsal and devising new material. We have a card game (the book was conceived over a game of Bridge), a choreography of images from the book and slow motifs from Berger’s writing, a tree branch falling, snow. We have 1000 leaves, 36 photographs for a slideshow and the pages from dozens of books. We are working somewhere between a lecture and a show, 2018 and 1967, a book and a play.
But more than anything we are working with the voice of the doctor. He only says about 365 words in the book, so it is impossible to adapt in a more traditional way, but everything he says gives us more of a sense of the kind of man he was and whether or not he was fortunate. He says: ‘Whenever I am reminded of death. And it happens every day. I think of my own death and it makes me try to work harder.’ It is impossible not to see this as some kind of prophecy given what we know about his death, but it also speaks of doctors today.
We want A Fortunate Man to have relevance to an audience now. We want it to be an appropriate tribute to Berger and Mohr’s book and the doctor who inspired it. We want it to bring him to life and applaud his exemplary work. We want to make scenes that have the same rhythm as Berger’s text on the page and the same atmosphere as Mohr’s images. We want the audience to feel like they have read the book when they leave the theatre.
Images by Matthew Brown