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A clever play which fails to capture the essence of Bevan: Lord Davies reviews 'Nye'

Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan: played by Michael Sheen | Image by: Johan Persson

Lord Davies of Brixton

Lord Davies of Brixton

3 min read

Michael Sheen’s Aneurin Bevan is always watchable but generally fails to capture the essence or charisma of this secular saint

Aneurin Bevan MP, known as Nye, was famously unruly and challenging for much of his political career. Nevertheless, he became minister of health in the 1945 Labour government and has subsequently become a secular saint for his key role in establishing our NHS. For that, he gets star billing in a major new production filling the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre (NT). The NT describes the play as an “epic Welsh fantasia” about “one of the most influential Britons of the 20th century”, and it is correct on both counts.

We start with Nye in his hospital bed (an NHS hospital, of course) towards the end of his life, laid low by cancer. We share his morphine-influenced hallucinations that present us with a series of isolated episodes to help us understand the man he became. These don’t follow a strict chronological sequence and so require some effort by the audience to “keep up”, especially if they have little prior knowledge of his life. Some sections are metaphorical, particularly a Busby Berkeley song-and-dance sequence. 

Only in segments did Sheen have the charisma or even, oddly, the Welshness of Bevan

It’s a clever stage production, with minimal props transforming from hospital ward to coal mine, to the House of Commons. Despite the vastness of this stage, there are moments of one-on-one intimacy – at least, as Bevan might have said, for those who can afford a seat in the stalls. 

Michael Sheen plays the title role and, while always watchable, for me he didn’t totally capture the essence of Bevan. Only in segments did he have the charisma or even, oddly, the Welshness of Bevan. The running time of two hours 40 minutes is justified by the subject, even though some episodes might benefit from being covered more succinctly.

Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan and Rhodri Meilir as David Bevan | Image by: Johan Persson

The message from the play is that our NHS was essentially Nye’s vision, grounded in his experience of poverty and struggle. We witness how he overcomes opposition, first in the Labour Party, where Herbert Morrison comes off particularly badly. His skill at negotiation, learnt as a young mineworkers’ representative, then helped him overcome the doctors’ obstructions, sticking with his resolve to keep 5 July 1948 as the service’s foundation date. Many will know his claim that he “stuffed their mouths with gold”, but not that he found ways to compromise and bend to realise his vision. 

The play has contemporary relevance. His vision for the NHS, a national service providing equal care for all, free at the point of use, paid for out of general taxation, still needs to be articulated. It was a great social policy in 1948 and it is a great social policy now, despite the undoubted challenges.

 To support the health of our nation is to support economic growth – an aspiration of all current political parties – so politicians should see this play as a reminder of how great social change can take place, when they have the wit and the will to see it through. 

Lord Davies of Brixton is a Labour peer

Written by: Tim Price
Directed by: Rufus Norris
Venue: National Theatre, Southbank until 11 May

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