Doctoring the Truth


The NHS is a British institution which commands uncritical loyalty. That much is clear to any politician who attempts to reform it. In the wake of the Mid Staffordshire scandal of patient neglect and sundry other malfunctions, public opinion has become more aware of the patchy and often unaccountable nature of Aneurin Bevan’s brainchild. The stage, by contrast, holds the nation’s health service in hallowed regard and aspic.

This May Hurt a Bit, by Stella Feehily, is a prime example. Her husband, the director Max Stafford-Clark, had a serious stroke few years ago, which exposed the couple to the horrors of belated ambulances, erratic care and the bureaucratic tangles of the modern NHS. Some would have taken this trauma as evidence that a system that has seen its budgets double in the decade after 1997, has demonstrated a greater ability to absorb money than to spend it effectively. Not, however, in this family drama in which Iris James (the redoubtable Stephanie Cole) falls ill and is taken to the geriatric ward of a poorly managed hospital.

Iris’s children quarrel about whether private healthcare would be better (on the evidence of the play, it could hardly be worse). Stereotypes abound, including despairing Guardianistas who believe the only thing wrong with the service is “the cuts”. A woven-in account of the American healthcare system is predictably unsympathetic. Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint is a small company which works well in small spaces like the St James’s Theatre in London, and they do their best with a drama which is really a political jeremiad of the type which asserts that Britain in 1945 is a workable model for an advanced healthcare system, prone to rising demands and galloping cost pressures. I don’t mind the pathos, but the unipolar hectoring and blatant lack of curiosity about the problems it illustrates are hard to take.

Nina Raine’s drama Tiger Country at the Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago dealt with the twin urges of altruism and self-regard in the staff of a busy A&E department and made the point sympathetically that many of those taking unenviable decisions in the health service are young professionals, bearing the stress of a system struggling under the weight of expectations it cannot satisfy. “There’s not enough of the NHS,” snarls an overworked doctor at one point, a view which tells you a lot about the approach of contemporary theatre writers to the subject. Any solution which varies the model is then “creeping privatisation”-and we are back full circle to the assertion that only more public spending can heal the service’s ills, when the evidence is firmly to the contrary.

The NHS gets another dramatic going over soon with a work in progress for the Royal Court by the Liverpool writer Michael Wynne, dealing with the recent reforms. Wynne’s play Hope Place at the newly refurbished Everyman, Liverpool, is a quick-witted blend of oral history and search for the traces of memory in cities. I like his ear for the absurdities in everyday speech, not least a local tour guide specialising in Merseyside crime who exclaims proudly, “We’ve had some cracking murders around here.” 

Wynne has been recording reactions to the reforms from a number of interested parties, including me. I approach the result, staged later this year with trepidation. Someone needs to write a truly thought-provoking work about the nation’s health and how we maintain it. Closed minds don’t shed much light.

Back in London at Wyndham’s, it was worth the ticket price for the Russian-language version of Three Sisters (with surtitles) just to eavesdrop on the audience of British Russia-watchers and leggy Slavs in furs and stilettos unselfconsciously texting during the key scenes, an atrocity the mordant Dr Chekhov would have relished.

Director Andrei Konchalovsky hails from one of those pliant Russian intellectual dynasties which rub along with whoever is in charge. (His father, Sergei Mikhalkov, managed to write the words to the Soviet national anthem three times in response to differing political requirements, including Vladimir Putin’s.) Better-known as a film director, Konchalovsky is keen to make Chekhov as familiar to English-speaking audiences as Shakespeare. In truth, he almost is these days, but it was rewarding to see a prime native cast having a go at the work of the finest Russian malcontent.

Konchalovsky’s Three Sisters was a brittle view of life on the provinces, stripped of the girlish romanticism of more traditional productions. Vershinin (Alexander Domogarov), the unhappily married soldier dallying with Masha (Julia Vysotskaya), was portrayed as a self-obsessed fantasist, rather than a hopeless dreamer, torn between duty and desire. The sisters were hard-bitten, smoking, caviling creatures. Even the fabled longing for Moscow did not seem to be felt as more than an echo of a desire long spent.

The net result was harsher and less involving than the play deserved. The best moments were the cast’s ironic reflections in front of Konchalovsky’s probing camera about what it was like to play Chekhov. The answers ranged from earnest young actors telling us that he is their inspiration to a veteran member of the cast chiding the director in full irate babushka mode for his innovation — “Is this strictly necessary, Andrei?” — and refusing to play along, other than to send greetings home.

It wasn’t remotely necessary, of course, but it did raise some cheer in a production which had bite and energy but lacked soul or a sense of purpose. A cluttered ending, with the characters watching footage of soldiers in the First World War, merely confused, and felt like a chilly way of saying that the gentry had Bolshevism coming to them. It may (as the Marxists used to say) be no coincidence that Konchalovsky belongs to a category nicknamed in Germany Putin-Versteher (Putin understanders), who somehow find others to blame for the Russian president’s disruptive actions. Konchalovsky thinks we should calm down over Crimea and Ukraine because it is an “elaborate bluff” by a “sophisticated leader” dealing with an “unsophisticated people”. If we are talking about a Chekhovian menu of fools, arrogance and unfolding tragedy, Putin does sound awfully like a prime character for the 21st-century version.

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