There are books which are called seminal largely because so many people have read them. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Pride and Prejudice. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (hush you - we're in Edinburgh - show some respect…)
Largely stylish surface, but lacking the depth to back it up
Far more intriguing, however, are those texts which are largely unknown outside of a specific community but, for those communities, are touchstones for their profession. For journalists, Strunk’s The Elements of Style. For horticulturalists, Cobbett’s The English Gardener. And for GPs, Berger and Mohr’s A Fortunate Man, chronicling the day-to-day life of country doctor John Sassall.
It's an importance which performers Matthew Brown and Hayley Doherty clearly appreciate and are keen to put across. Though not doctors themselves, they speak eloquently about the role of the doctor within their community. They also give us a vivid picture of authors John Berger and Jean Mohr and the working relationship they shared before and during the creation of the book.
However, having established the importance of its titular text, A Fortunate Man proceeds to give very little content the audience can use to understand the fortunate Sassall himself. We hear a few snippets and see the same poignant photo multiple times - at multiple magnifications - but there is little sense of what was special about Sassall and why he's still held up as a paragon of general practice. The crew did record verbatim interviews with two doctors about what A Fortunate Man means to them but, bafflingly, these verbatims are presented back simultaneously, rendering both completely unintelligible.
The play’s focus instead is on the events following the book; Sassall’s wife Joan’s death, his subsequent decline in mental health and his own untimely demise. These details are picked over and recreated through some admittedly innovative and impactful staging - a carpet of torn pages from the book being one of my favourite images. However, by replaying the darkest moments of Sassall’s life so thoroughly, mining them for every nugget of drama, the play feels, at points, almost like a character assassination.
In its Fringe programme entry, A Fortunate Man promises to explore and expand on what it calls 'one of the most important books about medical practice' in order to 'take the pulse of GP practice then and now, continuing the conversation in the 70th year of the NHS'. By digging into Sassall's later life and later death, the show certainly succeeds in expanding on its source text. However, by making this the overwhelming focus, they fail to explore what makes the original book an inspiration to GPs today or to look at its relevance to modern practice.
The book A Fortunate Man is a snapshot of a human being of great depths, few of which showed themself on the surface. The play A Fortunate Man is, by contrast, largely stylish surface but lacking the depth to back it up.