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Theatre Review - Nye. By William Cook

Arts | By William Cook

Illustration by Gary Wing

National Theatre, London, until IIth May

Michael Sheen, the talented Welsh actor, caused a bit of a kerfuffle last year, when he told the Telegraph, ‘I find it very hard to accept actors playing Welsh characters when they aren’t Welsh.’

Some people (including me) thought this was rich, coming from a Welshman who’d made his name playing famous Englishmen such as Tony Blair, Brian Clough and David Frost. Surely pretending to be people who aren’t like you is what acting is all about?

Ironically, the problem with Sheen’s latest role isn’t that his character comes from another country. If anything, it’s that he’s too close to home.

After David Lloyd George, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan was the greatest Welsh statesman of the last century. Hailed as the father of the NHS (though William Beveridge, conspicuous by his absence in this drama, should share some of the credit), he was also a brilliant orator, in spite of an acute stammer.

Born into a poor mining family, he left school at 13 to go down the pit, pulled himself up by his own bootstraps and became a hero of the Labour movement, a champion of the working class.

In a recent radio programme, Sheen called Bevan ‘one of my all-time political heroes’. It’s one thing narrating a documentary about one of your heroes – quite another playing him onstage.

Like a lot of politicians, Bevan was a bruiser – a bellicose debater and a ruthless backroom operator. Churchill called him ‘a squalid nuisance’. Despite his humble origins (or maybe because of them), he enjoyed the high life. The press dubbed him the Bollinger Bolshevik.

Yet the Bevan in Tim Price’s play is far too saintly for my liking. Yes, he’s depicted as pugnacious and obstreperous, but there’s no real scrutiny of the vanity and self-destructiveness that blighted his career and helped keep Labour out of power throughout the 1950s.

The construction of Price’s play is ingenious. We begin in hospital, where Bevan is undergoing a routine operation for an ulcer, only for doctors to discover he has stomach cancer – from which he died, aged just 62. Drugged up with morphine, he slips into a hallucinatory trance, recalling the odyssey of his life, from Tredegar to Westminster.

It’s an inventive device, allowing for a powerful element of fantasy. Many of the scenes have a surreal, almost Alice in Wonderland air (Sheen spends the entire play in his pyjamas, like a sleepwalker).

The dramatic possibilities are numerous and director Rufus Norris creates some striking set pieces. If only the central character was more nuanced.

In the early scenes, Sheen plays Bevan as a boy, and he never quite shakes off that boyish manner. Yes, Bevan had a high-pitched voice (which Sheen imitates perfectly), but he was a big bear of a man, an intimidating presence. Sheen has bulked up to play the part, but he remains childlike, almost innocent – an image at odds with the historical record.

You’d need to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with the hardship of Bevan’s early life: he was one of ten children, only five of whom survived, and his father died of pneumoconiosis (aka black lung), a deadly disease brought on by mineworking, for which the family received no compensation.

In these early scenes, Price’s Dickensian treatment is fair enough, but when Nye enters politics, it tips over into hagiography. There’s a Brechtian flavour to these later scenes that feels drearily didactic.

This pedagogical approach is compounded by some colour-blind and gender-fluid casting. I know this is commonplace now, and normally I hardly notice it, but one place where it really jars is in historical dramas about real events and real people. Why on earth is Clement Attlee played by a woman in a bald wig?

The best character by far is Bevan’s wife, Jennie Lee, played with feisty passion by Sharon Small. This fiery Scottish socialist, who sacrificed her own career for her husband’s, would make a much better subject for a play.

Nye ends with a paean to the National Health Service. I’m eternally grateful to Bevan’s creation – it saved my son’s life and my daughter’s – but I can’t help feeling such a sentimental approach does this admirable institution no favours.

As the rest of the audience rose around me in a standing ovation, I was uncomfortably reminded of that embarrassing debacle during lockdown, when we all stood on our doorsteps applauding the NHS.

This story was from Spring 2024 issue. Subscribe Now