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Politics is Personal: Reviewing 'Nye' at the National Theatre

Full of Welsh whimsy, political integrity and technicolour, Nye immerses you. Staged and Good Omens actor Michael Sheen is Aneurin Bevan, the “noisy” Labour Party Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale, who is credited for the creation of the National Health Service. Although charged with political commentary and fact, the play delves into Bevan’s interpersonal relationships, echoing how the personal is always political.

Michael Sheen in 'Nye'. Photo by Johan Persson.

Written by Tim Price and held in the National Theatre at Southbank, the production begins with Nye hospitalised with stomach cancer, brutally unaware of his condition. In and out of consciousness, he journeys into a vibrant dreamworld scrambled full of his memories: studying Marxist theory, receiving lashings from his teacher, entering a library for the first time full of awe and possibility, and even a brilliantly sung musical number. This, interspersed with segments in the hospital with his wife Jennie Lee (Sharon Small) and close friend Archie Lush (Roger Evans), ground the dreamlike quality of the performance whilst witnessing grief in real time. The projection of lungs and consistent wheezing and beeping noises sounding away during various moments makes known Bevan’s life ticking away at the second; it halts the audience’s enjoyment of the warm and comedic scenes with understanding that his death will eventually arrive. 

Push and pull between Bevan and his sister Arianwen (Kezrena Jones) were delivered with anguish, silencing the room in spectacle. Preventing Bevan from leaving his dying father without a visit, Arianwen embraces him in an act of defiance and love, a gesture which remains deeply embedded into my memory of the performance.  Comedically, Bevan remained barefoot in red striped pajamas throughout the production, symbolising his vulnerable and out of place status in parliament as a working-class Welshman. 

Photo by Johan Persson.

As a National Theatre production, it was expected that the utilisation of the set would be smooth and clever. Bevan’s hospital bed rolled around on stage with versatility in almost every setting, with various actors jumping on and off. High curtains were pulled down creating benches for scenes in the House of Commons, moved through by Bevan entering a new memory, and projected onto with doctors confronting Bevan about the creation of the NHS.   

During the interval, I stood on the terrace overlooking the Thames, the roads and streets brimming with movement, lights, and life. I thought of the desolate valleys of South Wales, my place of origin. Lack of government funding and employment opportunities has now led to retail parks and local businesses closing to the public. When witnessing the noisy streets, I could not help but feel like Aneurin Bevan would be devastated by the government’s continued lack of support for the working people residing in the valleys. 

Photo by Johan Persson.

Proceeding the interval, Nye became more of a ‘tell’ not ‘show’ play. It slightly diminished its impact when watching as I believe it could have dealt with its shift in a more inventive fashion. Yet, due to it being a biopic play with a limited run time, it is evident why it would fall into a factual mode.  

With fears of the NHS becoming a difficult environment for workers, exceedingly long waitlists, and more patients turning to the private sector, it begs the question of whether the play will represent Britain’s healthcare system in the future. Will Nye remain relevant to us, or disintegrate into a fragment of the past? Either way, it beams Aneurin Bevan into the spotlight, reminding politicians to take risks for the greater good of the people. 


Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.


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