Doctors get sad too.
For a performance dealing with doctors and depression, it’s remarkable how clinical New Perspectives’ A Fortunate Man is; beyond the actual waiting room-like setup complete with plastic chairs, our hosts tell us exactly how many acts this is going to take, and reveal how the book will end with the suicide of our protagonist, English country doctor Dr John Sassall. Written and directed by Michael Pinchbeck, the aim of A Fortunate Man then is not narrative but rather, eulogistic, as the self-described ‘stage exploration’ attempts to cross-examine parts of writer John Berger and photographer Jean Mohr’s book of the same name.
Over the course of one hour, performers Hayley Doherty and Jamie de Courcey’s presentation acts almost like a theatrical trailer to the book, encouraging us to read it as they project a slideshow of still and moving images from and inspired by the tome, while direct references to page numbers are made as both performers attempt to interpret and explain what goes on between each page, resulting in what feels more akin to a dramatic book club rather than a direct adaptation of the original text, hailed as a strong point of reference even today as to how those in the healthcare profession might remain motivated or find meaning in what they do. Yet, it is the paradox of his eventual suicide that allows the text to be read also as a cry for help, and for readers to realize the daily struggles and challenges doctors face.
Initially poised as a character study of Sassall and his profession, A Fortunate Man is littered with plenty of beautiful scenes and moments of the good doctor’s life, from a fallen Sassall lying in a bed of leaves, looking like something straight out of a classical painting, to Sassall’s refrain of ‘I know, I know, I know’ at each consultation, as if he is using those words to absorb and bear the burden of his patients’ pain. Sassall seems almost saint-like in his portrayal, always understanding, willing to go beyond what the job entails to forge bonds with each person blessed by his presence, extending a diagnosis into therapy.
When the performance attempts to extend its scope and bring in elements outside of Sassall’s profession however, is when things begin to get a little messy. In staging a conversation between Berger and Mohr, in going into Sassall’s ever doting wife, and especially when the performance attempts to compare Sassall’s situation to the modern day challenges of the UK’s NHS system is when it feels like A Fortunate Man is beginning to stretch its material, grasping at tiny details that end up feeling extraneous or like afterthoughts, like scraps of a life visibly stitched together awkwardly rather than organically. Yes, the facts are clear that a man so great as Sassall taking his own life is worthy of being considered a tragedy, but perhaps due to the nature of the medium’s use of breaking the fourth wall, we as the audience are constantly aware of the frame around which this portrait is depicted, preventing us from fully diving into it emotionally and feeling, rather than simply understanding, the loss of Sassall and his constant struggle.
A Fortunate Man has plenty of potential to be a gripping, urgent call for awareness and empathy, with Michael Pinchbeck’s script, for the most part, buoying the show and keeping our focus on the poetic language used to elevate and beautify Sassall’s life into an English countryside dream, as well as the use of Mohr’s hauntingly atmospheric photos to pique us. Perhaps though, to complete the experience, one ought to do as the play suggests, pick up a copy of A Fortunate Man, and immerse ourselves fully in this sad account of an ordinary man who left the world a better place than it was before.
Photo Credit: Julian Hughes
Performance attended 18/1/19
A Fortunate Man played from the 18th to 19th January 2019 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.