THERE has never been a time when the National Health has had a higher profile than during the pandemic. Throughout 2020 it was impossible to miss posters, petitions, news stories, government statements and support demonstrations for the service set up in 1948 by a hopeful and pioneering Labour administration.
Before long opposition had evaporated and we all came to rely on a service in which free health care was available to all, reliably staffed by professional experts.
In 2000, Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange made its National Theatre debut, transferring to the West End. The writer described it as marking a dying National Health Service. His central theme is of “professionalism” as an end in itself, a time when bright young people sign on for university and training in one of the professions, so that they can earn highly and achieve a status they might not otherwise claim.
In this powerfully thought-provoking play, now touring and in Bath until 13th November, a consultant who has been denied a professorship and a first-year doctor, Bruce, specialising in psychiatry vie for control of a disturbed young black man. In its original production, the sinewy Bill Nighy played the consultant, Robert, but in the current outing Hamilton star Giles Terera takes on the role, introducing a whole new slant to the arguments.
Chris, brilliantly played by Michael Balogun, is a loner adrift in White City, picked up by police alerted by his peculiar behaviour in a market and “sectioned” for 28 days. It’s time for him to leave the hospital, but the doctors don’t agree on his continuing treatment.
Bruce, while knowing that a diagnosis of schizophrenia is no longer the modern flavour of the day, thinks Chris should be kept for longer. Robert, mindful of targets, costs and current wonder-drugs, thinks the deluded young man is suitable for care in the community – immediately.
What looks like a clash of ideologies over the best treatment for the patient is soon exposed as a generational battle for supremacy within the closed world of the medical profession. What Chris, says, feels or needs is largely irrelevant.
James Dacre’s taut production has its audience wondering for a long time whether they should view Terera’s Robert from a colour-blind perspective, until, in a brief re-write by Penhall, the effete consultant claims “brotherhood” with the man who believes he’s the son of Idi Amin and that oranges are blue.
It makes the cavalier disregard for the patient all the more horrible.
Blue/Orange, set on Simon Kenny’s stark and violently lit stage, runs through one day of consultations. Then it stops. The actors don’t return to the stage and the audience is left wondering what to do. Maybe a bit like Chris.