The Greatest Wealth: First, Do No Harm at the Old Vic online
First, Do No Harm is the last in an anthology of monologues representing the different decades in the life cycle of the NHS. Initially staged in 2018, this final part features Sharon D. Clarke as the Greek goddess Hygia, who pleads with jeering citizens to take more care of their bodies and, by extension, the NHS itself. In June, writer Bernadine Evaristo became the first woman of colour to top the British book charts with her Booker-winning Girl, Woman, Other (shared with Margaret Atwood’s dismal Handmaid’s Tale cash-in, The Testaments. Consensus has clearly come around on the superior of the two).
On a roll, this couldn’t be a better time for First, Do No Harm to emerge into the public eye. It begins with pictures of now fading in and out. Clarke enters the stage dressed like Medea. “Pelt me with your pathetic insults,” she calls as she lists faults in the British psyche. It initially seems to speak from a conservative perspective, sounding less like Hygia than Britannia herself. This character is linked to the NHS as a caring, mothering organism.
I would not hold the corniness against writer, actor, or theatre for taking part in this endeavour. But nor can I overlook that in some transference between the three, the project becomes annoying via a game of telephone. It tends to admonish the public for not taking their health seriously – “do not touch the poppy seed or the horse tranquilliser” – recalling populist arguments that people are taking the NHS for granted by using it to fix their own mistakes. This shifts the onus of blame for the inarguable crisis gripping the institution away from the government, who continually refuse nurses’ pay rises and failed to provide staff with PPE throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and onto the public for having health problems.
The filming of the piece is exquisite, though. Closeups of Clarke’s sad face against a black background don’t look far away from Pedro Costa’s work on Vitalina Varela. The Straubian Greek discourse reinforces this. Yet First, Do No Harm, rather than challenge the establishment which we know is contributing to the crisis, chooses to turn its ire towards the people. Interesting timing, given that lockdown has essentially ended in the last two days with the re-opening of pubs and restaurants.