A Fortunate Man
Camden People’s Theatre
Reviewed – 14th June 2018
“a valuable remembrance of a doctor who valued and understood humanity”
In the mid 1960s acclaimed writer and art critic John Berger embarked on a project with photographer Jean Mohr to pay homage to their friend John Sassall. A GP in a small Gloucestershire village, he was not only an outstanding physician but sought to treat his patients with empathy and compassion, building security and strength within their community. Berger and Mohr, who had both been patients of Sassall, spent six weeks observing him in his clinic and on emergency visits and subsequently, in 1967, published ‘A Fortunate Man. The Story of a Country Doctor.’ Though hugely influential, their reflections bear little resemblance to the work of a GP today, overweighed by working time directives and the commercialisation of disease. Fifteen years after the book came out and following the death of his wife, John Sassall committed suicide, uncovering a different picture of this man who devoted his life to helping others.
As writer and director, Michael Pinchbeck takes Berger’s text and creates a dramatic, poetic and impressionistic enactment of Sassall’s life. The initial dialogue is interspersed with dates and page references, similar to the formality of the case studies in Berger’s book. Gradually, the narratives and theatrical ideas take on varied and imaginative shapes, describing the many aspects of his complex character, his family life and his passions. Towards the end we see a side which would have been hidden from almost everyone; Sassall’s wife does not appear in the book but here Pinchbeck shows how she quietly loved, helped and supported her husband, who in turn is broken by her death.
Together with the design (Eleanor Field), lighting (Amy Mae) and sound (Chris Cousin), actors Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty create some affecting scenes and generate a haunting sense of loss. Sassall’s suicide is described as ‘the ending that changes the story’ and the constant motif of leaves, cards, papers and by extension, lives and values, being wantonly discarded, suggest that it’s more than the ethos of the NHS that’s lost, but something in society as a whole. Berger says of Sassall, “He is acknowledged as a good doctor because he meets the deep but unformulated expectation of the sick for a sense of fraternity.” A reasonable expectation that somehow became outlandish.
In a packed and airless Camden People’s Theatre it was hard to stay focussed on an impressionistic rendition of an impressionistic source, nevertheless, New Perspectives provide a valuable remembrance of a doctor who valued and understood humanity, and a country that valued and understood doctors.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Julian Hughes
A Fortunate Man
Camden People’s Theatre until 16th June
Previously reviewed at this venue