Nye, National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre

May 22, 2024 by


I have, as I am sure many other people also do, a deep-seated horror of hospitals. Hospitals are, as a whole, a challenge when it comes to make them feel like a welcoming or comfortable place; they do not inspire any fuzzy feelings, and the thought of dying in a hospital especially is a decidedly ominous one.

This, perhaps before any other, is an issue Nye, a new National Theatre and Wales Millennium production bringing to the stage the life of Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan and the way he came to found the NHS, has to contend with.

Its fundamental premise is that Nye is in a hospital bed, and he is dying, and as he lies unconscious he half-reminisces, half-dreams, half-hallucinates about the events of his past life; and that the hospital – the hospital that exists because of him – now holds him as a place of comfort and care. The production tries very hard to convey this point: it does so through humour, through song and dance, through a handful of genuinely moving, quieter moments, and, towards the end, by stating it explicitly. It is a very valiant effort, aided by a clever stage design that translates visual elements from the hospital into every scene; and for the most part it is successful. But a hint of dread remains, and that is perhaps inevitable.

There is another, more conceptual risk in a production like this, which endeavours to be a portrait of a man mostly known for one great deed, and it is that it might turn into an eulogy masquerading as a play. Tim Price’s clever script manages to avoid this one entirely, by making its Nye Bevan first and foremost a man, not shying away from the representation of his flaws – his philandering, his excess of stubbornness, his avoidant behaviour – and resulting in a more relatable representation because of it.






A symbol can come across dreary and too-distant; while it was easy to empathise with this Bevan as a man, with his vulnerabilities and his fears, with the things driving him and the things haunting him. A good part of the credit, of course, also goes to a bravura performance by Michael Sheen in the titular role. A quick comparison with the photos of the real Bevan is enough to realise how deeply the lead actor channelled the man he was supposed to depict; some of Sheen’s own quirks of acting surfaced here and there, but they were charming rather than distracting, and there was a pleasant attention to detail in the way he approached his character. Had you not known, going in, that Bevan suffered from a stutter, you might have been surprised and a little taken aback in the first few scenes by a feeling that Sheen was, here and there, fumbling his lines – until the stutter was brought up as a plot point and it all suddenly made sense.

Where the play succeeded in not lionising the man, it was not always equally successful in not lionising the NHS. Perhaps there is something about it that makes any criticism uncomfortable, and this can never quite be forgotten; and the few moments in which Nye slipped into the rhetorical were all connected with this. In general, the script fared better when it leaned into its sense of humour, and its message was also more effectively conveyed in those moments; of the more serious parts, the stand-outs were certainly the ones which explored the depths of personal feelings rather than the ideological underpinnings of the healthcare system. If the script occasionally preached, though, those moments were few and far between, and certainly not enough to undermine the effectiveness of this production as a whole.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the staging was in the way that it played with the fact that the memories we see portrayed are also the fever dreams of a dying man in a hospital. A tinge of the hallucinatory is projected onto every scene, sometimes to comedic effect and sometimes to generate a sense of marvel and poignancy (most notably, in the scene in which Nye’s father takes him down the mines).

The casting leans into this element as well: every single figure from Nye’s life is also someone working in the hospital, and there is a strong feeling that the roles are not matched at random. Thus Nye’s sister Arianwen, portrayed by Kezrena James, is also the nurse who stands at his bedside; Tony Jayawardena’s rather humorous Winston Churchill is also the consultant who performed Nye’s operation; Stephanie Jacob’s delightfully deadpan Clement Attlee is also the matron, and so on. Anchoring the play, and the audience, to the bleakness of the present moment are Roger Evans’ Archie Lush and Sharon Small’s Jennie Lee, whose conflict and eventual reconciliation in the face of the hardest moment is a conduit for exploring the contradictions in the life of our central figure. Nye’s father, David Bevan, acting in equal measure as trauma and inspiration, is played by Rhodri Meillir as a dramatic figure with an almost epic quality to him; it is one of the performances which linger the most after the play is done.

Making the death of a central character into a feel-good moment is no simple task, and a little of the hospital dread lingered, in spite of the play’s best efforts, after its final scene. Perhaps it is inevitable; perhaps it is simply part of human nature. There is a moment in the play in which Nye reflects on the fact that the healthcare system he is about to found must by needs be imperfect, because of its very nature; possibly this also holds true for an ending like this. As a portrait of a man, rather than a politician, Nye succeeded, and thus a tinge of bitterness when that man takes his final leave is perhaps to be expected.



Images by Johan Persson


Nye, Wales Millennium Centre until June 1




Preview: http://New Nye Bevan play with actor Michael Sheen, National Theatre and WMC

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