When theatre director Max Stafford-Clark suffered a massive stroke in 2006, his artistic and personal partner, playwright Stella Feehily, became the theatrical firebrand and former artistic director of the Traverse Theatre's full-time carer. Eight years on, the accidental result of this is This May Hurt A Bit, an angry, funny and utterly humane dissection of the NHS in light of the Westminster coalition government's ongoing attempt to destroy one of the UK's greatest assets.
“We used the NHS regularly,” says Feehily, whose play arrives at the Traverse next week in a production by a recovered Stafford-Clark for Out of Joint, the company he co-founded in 1998. “We had the patient experience, the near death experience and the chaos experience. We've seen the food, the bad, and not the ugly, but pretty close, but I would never have thought about writing a play about the NHS without that experience.”
This May Hurt A Bit charts the experience of an elderly patient who has grown up with the NHS and other liberties forged by the post World War Two welfare state, and who is suddenly forced to face up to its institutional decimation. As well as being visited by her family, Aneurin Bevan, the visionary socialist MP regarded as the architect of the NHS, also appears in a play that, while undoubtedly political, possesses a very human heart.
“On the one hand you can call the play a comedy drama that's about a divided family” says Feehily. “On the other hand you can say it's a political drama that looks at a government that's more concerned with selling off the NHS to big business than serving patients. If you're going to write a play, it has to be an entertainment, but if it's a play about the NHS, it's going to be emotional, and you can't sit on the fence.”
One of the things Feehily encountered in her researches was the results of the UK coalition government's much maligned Health and Social Care Act, which was passed in 2012, and which to its detractors looks very much like privatisation of the NHS. Also of note was Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's attempts to cut services in the emergency and maternity services at Lewisham Hospital were decreed unlawful by the courts twice.
“We're supposed to be living in a democracy,” Feehily says, “but when things like that happen, it doesn't feel like it is. I find it quite spooky, and I don't want to believe it's as Machiavellian as it is, but it's hard not to. It's amazing that Scotland has managed to keep the market out the way it has. The politicians in Scotland must realise that the NHS isn't about shareholders making money by cutting funds and staff, and bleeding services dry,. Of course, there are problems with health services all over the world, and no-one's saying it's perfect, but that's how it is with life and death.”
This May Hurt A Bit, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 8-12
The Herald, April 1st 2014