A Fortunate Man

Michael Pinchbeck
New Perspectives
Camden People's Theatre

Hayley Doherty and Matthew Brown Credit: Julian Hughes
Hayley Doherty Credit: Julian Hughes
Hayley Doherty and Matthew Brown Credit: Julian Hughes

John Berger’s elegant sentences, his perceptive imagination, and his provocative politics are all good reasons to spend time with his work. There are certainly some of these in the New Perspectives fifty-minute celebration of the 1967 publication of A Fortunate Man by John Berger and Jean Mohr.

However there is also much about this show that is puzzling and occasionally irritating.

Using a mixture of quoted text, interviews and projections, they conjure up in what begins as an imagined lecture, the book’s account of the rural general practitioner John Sassall who is shown dealing with everything from surgery to therapy within the context of a community and the landscape of the Forest of Dean.

There is no need to wonder about the source of their material. All statements etc seem to be accompanied by a spoken attribution not only of the book, the article or Wikipedia entry but also page numbers and even date. Not that anyone was likely to recall any of the listings or even understand why they had to hear them.

The suicide of John Sassall in 1982, long after the book’s publication, dominates the show as a thematic statement about a lost world as well as a mystery to be explored.

It gives poignancy to the cases described, such as his treatment in the forest with a kind, reassuring efficiency of a forester whose leg had been crushed by a fallen tree.

But there are times when his manner appears to be mocked, as when he speaks to a weeping woman with words that in themselves may be helpful but are said with such machine gun rapidity it was lucky the woman didn’t run screaming from the room.

Inserted into the show are brief contemporary interviews about the role of the doctor, but they amount to little more than the claim of one voice that they are “treating people’s needs.”

Whether the actors speaking the verbatim they hear on headphones are any more informative we will never know, since they speak at the same time as each other and some very loud gushing music that drowns out everything anyway.

Maybe they are trying to make a political comment about the way people are disrespected by the modern health care system, but it could easily be seen as silliness that disrespects the people they interviewed.

Some things seem to be simply wasting time. This was how it could feel with their repeated tendency to throw things on the floor.

Playing cards are chucked around early in the play. Later, as Matthew Brown places golf balls across the stage, Hayley Doherty dumps streams of shredded paper.

This restless, devised search for any old visuals to accompany the narrative surely reaches the depths of absurdity when Sassall kills himself with a gunshot to the head and Hayley puts a bandage on Matthew’s head as an illustration.

The show still has time before it hits the Edinburgh fringe to rework its material letting Berger speak to us uncluttered by all the devised antics that will drive audiences to distraction and risk the culture police sending the company off to read what John Berger would say about all this in his book Ways of Seeing.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna