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8 March 2024

Michael Sheen is remarkable in the National Theatre’s Nye

There could not be a better time for this story of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the Welsh Labour MP and arch-creator of the NHS.

By Andrew Marr

This could have been terrible. Ours is not an age for heroes or hero worship and the story of Aneurin “Nye” Bevan, the Welsh Labour MP and, as minister of health, arch-creator of the NHS, seems in some ways too easy – a safe, self-congratulatory night out for liberal London. A sentimentalist myself, I was uneasy.

But Michael Sheen as Nye, the director Rufus Norris and the playwright Tim Price have pulled this off. Granted, there were moments when we seemed to be slipping into campus agitprop, with sinister moustachioed Tories and gamely prancing honest workers; but there were enough genuinely dramatic and realised set-piece confrontations to see us through.

Sheen is pretty remarkable. For those who remember his lean and knowing Tony Blair, or the hirsute activist of recent years, his chubby and curiously innocent Bevan – a pyjama-ed child naive enough to change the world – might shock. He bounces from stuttering schoolboy (the Bevan stutter is superbly realised) to irresistible lover; wily political manipulator to tormented, dying patient at extraordinary speed, without missing a footstep.

The real Bevan, from all I have read and watched, was a more formidable and charismatic man than Sheen can give us. But who, these days, could match Bevan’s swivelling, menacing, sarcastic but elevating oratory, with its slight jumps and swooping changes of key? You may as well complain that Kirk Douglas couldn’t paint as well as Vincent Van Gogh, or that Robert J Oppenheimer had a better grasp of physics than has Cillian Murphy.

No single play could do more than reduce this story into fragments. There is no reference to Bevan’s role in the 1926 general strike, his long feud with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, his collection of essays on democratic socialism In Place of Fear (1952), or his opposition to the bomb and his famous reversal of it. But the play’s emphasis on the agonies of his early years and his miner father’s death from pneumoconiosis pays dividends: it makes Bevan a bodily creature whose physical vulnerability provides a central image for the case for the NHS.

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At times I wondered whether this would have been better as a one-man play. The Olivier at the National is a huge theatre – in a curious way its brutalism, which now feels nostalgic, matches the spirit of the early NHS – and it takes a huge personality to dominate it. With a spare set based around acid-green hospital curtains, Sheen easily fills the space. For much of the time, the rest of the cast act almost as a backdrop or decoration, albeit a mobile one. This being the National, they are hugely professional and well-drilled, but all the scampering and “living statue” poses at times felt a tad amateurish.

The structure of the play, with Bevan reflecting on his life in morphine-inflected hallucinatory fragments, requires fast, sketchy storytelling. The question is whether this neglects Bevan’s unique personality and the political choices he made. But in the end, Price and Norris get the balance right. Bevan’s insecurities in the 1930s are well explained; and his long struggle with the British Medical Association (BMA) just before the birth of the NHS is brilliantly done, with a highly effective use of photomontage. Real politics is often a grisly writhe through compromise and detail to get to the prize, something that is hard to put into dramatic form.

Some beautiful cameos held the play together. There are lovely encounter scenes between Sheen and Sharon Small’s Jennie Lee, and Tony Jayawardena’s Winston Churchill. Jon Furlong is superb as Herbert Morrison, genuinely quite scary. And while I had never imagined Clement Attlee as a comic figure, manipulating a desk on wheels, I will never forget Stephanie Jacob’s hilarious portrayal.

After the recent Budget some commentators, looking at the bleak outlook for public expenditure by the mid-2020s, are asking whether the NHS in its current form – its still essentially Bevanite form – can survive.  As this play reminds us, Bevan himself warned at its beginning that it would constantly morph and face new challenges as new treatments became available, and new demands accumulated. He understood very well, thanks to the BMA, the lucrative lure of private medicine. And he, of course, resigned from the government over the introduction of charges for dentistry and spectacles.

So, there could not be a better time to remember in our National Theatre the reasons for the NHS and the agonised story of its creation. We have become more cynical people, perhaps, since 1948. Few of us today regard politicians as heroes or prophets, as the left saw Nye. By the end of this show there were plenty of wet faces in the audience, mine included: sentimentality is not always wrong.

[See also: David Tennant is refreshingly vile in the Donmar’s Macbeth]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul