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Barry Peters On ... Mixing Medicine and Theatre

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Dr Barry Peters is a consultant physician at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in London and a trustee of the National AIDS Trust. His love of theatre began at a young age, having attended classes at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and performed in Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre (demolished in 1969).

A Rude Awakening, a drama about the interplay of politics and attitudes to sexuality set in the American Deep South, is Peters' first play, although he advised on medical aspects of the 1992 National Theatre production of Angels in America.

It is something that I did not expect when I entered the field as a junior doctor: I was most struck all those years ago by how an individual could be shunned by fellow human beings just because of their sexual orientation. It was the effects of this above all else which caused most anxiety to many of those I cared for.

And so the thought crossed my mind immediately: what if the tables were turned? How would the perpetrators deal with the world if attitudes to sexuality were different – indeed reversed?

A lifelong lover of the theatre (I appeared in a six-week run aged 12 at the Scala Theatre), it was not long before I put pen to paper, prompted by seeing the Royal National Theatre’s Angels in America in 1992. A friend who was helping with the set asked me for some props and they rewarded me with a first-night comp. Superb though the drama was in capturing the misery of the early days of the HIV epidemic, I felt it didn’t fully capture what I was seeing happening to my patients.

I did not want to write another play about HIV and AIDS. Instead I picked what was to me the 'missing element' – the bigotry engendered though attitudes to sexual preferences. A Rude Awakening emerged in its first complete form in 1994. At that time I was appointed a consultant in infection and was far too busy to take the project further. Fast forward to 2009. The theatre director wife of a new colleague read the play and was interested enough to help move it forward: she helped produce workshops at the Oval House Studios with a rehearsed reading which resulted in the opportunity to produce another rehearsed reading at the National Theatre.

The New End Theatre was intrigued by my approach and I was delighted by the encouragement to work on it further. Soon I was committed to a five-week run at the Hampstead venue.

So how do I cope with a full-time job as a doctor plus re-writes and all the necessary dramaturgical changes to make A Rude Awakening fit for the theatre? In some ways it was easy and I was propelled forward by my passion for the subject and love of writing. And unlike my day job, where the need to problem-solve and narrow diagnostic options is constant, writing the play was a marvellous opportunity to open my mind to the myriad ways a story can be told.

One thing I am happy to share at this stage is that what I thought would be a straightforward tale subverted my expectations in every way possible: how wrong I was! The plot development, even the ending, have turned out so differently to what I imagined when starting this creative journey. And the storyline that proved powerful enough to entice the New End Theatre to invite me into its fold? Well, if you come along you’ll find out!

A Rude Awakening plays the New End Theatre from 4 February (previews from 1 February) until 6 March 2011.


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