Writer: John Berger and Jean Mohr
Adaptor/Director: Michael Pinchbeck
Reviewer: Lucy Lambert
In 1967 writer and painter John Berger, together with photographer Jean Mohr, published A Fortunate Man, a portrait of country doctor John Sassall. It combines social observation with ethical and medical philosophy and paints not only a detailed portrait of a rural community and the dedicated doctor at its heart, but is also a powerful study of the value of human life and the care it requires.
Theatre-maker and writer Michael Pinchbeck has created a theatrical tribute to the book, combining excerpts of text with interviews published after Sassall’s death, projected images from the book and verbatim text from contemporary doctors in the UK.
As a prompt to read the book, this production works well. It is clear that Sassall is a dedicated and analytical man and the insights into the working relationship between Berger and Mohr provided by the play are interesting. However, as a piece of theatre it disappoints. Its depiction of the central character is marred by the production’s morbid obsession with Sassall’s suicide, which happened after the book was published. His death takes up a disproportionate amount of stage time in the play’s slender 60 minutes, including a slow-motion sequence to illustrate Sassall’s decent into madness, pills scattered on the floor and a re-enactment of his suicide, complete with prop revolver. Even the last line of the play drives home the message; ‘His death has changed the story of his life’. We get it, he killed himself. The eagerness to retrospectively paint the facts of Sassall’s life with his suicide comes across as gratuitous and un-interrogated.
A theatrical tribute to text by John Berger is a tall order; Berger’s interest in formal experimentation and his constant analysis of the mechanisms with which we produce and enjoy art would reasonably lead audiences to expect theatrical innovation. Sadly, the production is anything but innovative. The well-worn tropes of devised theatre are all there: projections, microphones, objects being scattered on the floor, physical theatre sequences and verbatim text and so on. The beauty of Berger’s book lies in its careful detail and forensic observation. No such care is taken here. One of the more interesting sequences involves real accounts from doctors working in the UK today, but the two accounts are spoken over the top of each other, actively prohibiting the dedicated listening that the book captures so tenderly.
Runs until Saturday 16 June 2018 | Image: Julian Hughes