John Berger’s A Fortunate Man – accompanied by Jean Mohr’s photographs – was published in 1967, as a 50:50 collaboration between writer and photographer. The meditative work followed a rural GP’s life – Dr. John Sassall – who went the extra mile for his patients in a rural community. However, in 1982, 15 years after the work was published, the doctor killed himself.
This first staging of the work – a collaboration between touring theatre company New Perspectives and writer Michael Pinchbeck – coincides with the seventieth anniversary of the NHS and is performed as something between a lecture and a re-enactment. The multimedia work explores Sassall’s life even further up until his death, as well as looks to the present day and the lives of GPs now.
In an interview with journalist Gavin Francis, John Berger described how his friendship with the doctor developed: “I became friends with Sassall after going to him with some minor medical problem,” Berger explained. “I used to meet regularly with him and with Anant (another writer) to play bridge.” These meetings revealed a thoughtful, empathetic man who believed in universal knowledge and experience. Berger later decided to write about this man who could all too easily be forgotten.
Snippets from such interviews, as well as the text itself, are what form the basis of this presentation of the work, which also features interviews with those inspired by the work, notably GPs today. One of the most compelling moments is when the two performers sit with headphones on and simultaneously read out the interviews from GPs discussing their work, reminding the audience of the vital – and multi-faceted – work that doctors do.
The staging also seeks to reveal the creative process that Berger and Mohr engaged in. As the performers tell us verbatim: “We had both tried to write the book on our own. That’s not what we wanted at all, so we reworked it so that the words and pictures were like a conversation; building on, rather than mirroring, one another.” Therefore, black-and-white images from the book are projected onto a doctor’s curtain, and changed on the performers demand for “slide, please.”
This lecture-cum-play is a thoughtful piece of writing as brought together by Michael Pinchbeck, who both writes and directs. By closing the loop on the story, there is undeniably a greater sense of tragedy, but also a greater poignancy to A Fortunate Man, who helped so many of those in suffering, but hid his own pain from view.
A Fortunate Man is playing at the Camden People’s Theatre until 16 June
Photo: Julian Hughes