Michael Sheen’s Nye: Doctor turns performer for NHS play

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By Nicola BryanBBC News

Sara Otung Dr Otung with Michael Sheen Sara Otung

Dr Otung has been working with Michael Sheen since January

A doctor who has taken a break from her day job to star in a play alongside Michael Sheen says the experience has given her hope for the future of the NHS.

As a junior doctor in acute medicine, Dr Sara Otung is more accustomed to dealing with patients with infections or having suspected heart attacks.

But since January, she has been a member of the ensemble and an understudy in the play Nye, which sees Sheen portray Welsh politician and architect of the NHS Aneurin Bevan.

She said the play, which has transferred from London’s National Theatre to Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, had left some of her NHS colleagues moved to tears.

“There’s been a real sense of hopelessness recently regarding the NHS and so to go back to its roots, this play is perfect timing,” she said.

Johann Persson  Dr Otung and Michael Sheen in rehearsal Johann Persson

Dr Otung is in the ensemble and is an understudy in Nye

Dr Otung, who is from Pontypridd, Rhondda Cynon Taf, which is just 20 miles (32km) from Tredegar, Blaenau Gwent, where Bevan was raised, said she grew up knowing surprisingly little about him or the origins of the NHS.

Bevan, who left school at 13 to work in a coal mine, created the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 when he was UK government minister for health and housing.

“Learning about the state of health in the UK before the NHS, I was shocked because those are the kind of things that we hear about in other countries in terms of people not being able to access health care, but we never really think about the fact that that’s how it was here in the UK,” she said.

“Women’s healthcare wasn’t even really a thing because families simply couldn’t afford that and they would have to prioritise the healthcare of the man who was earning money.”

She said understanding the origins of the NHS made her more positive that it had a future.

“It has made me in some ways more hopeful because the fact that it went from not existing at all to existing means that we can get it back on its feet,” she said.

Sara Otung Dr Otung in her scrubsSara Otung

Sara Otung is a junior doctor in acute medicine

Dr Otung is not new to acting.

“I’d done a few acting lessons as a child, but we couldn’t really afford them and so I had to stop,” she said.

“I remember just begging my mum if I could do them again, but it just wasn’t a possibility and so I kind of put that to the side, really.”

Then when she went to Birmingham University to study medicine, she began performing in the university’s musical theatre productions, juggling it around her lectures and exams.

She said while working as a doctor at Cardiff’s University Hospital Llandough through the Covid pandemic, an experience she described as crazy and intense, she realised she did not want to turn her back on performing.

Her realisation began when she took part in Gareth Malone’s TV programme The Choir: Singing for Britain, and found the experience therapeutic.

But it was something the then-prime minister Boris Johnson said that made her mind up.

“He said they were going to stop all the non-essentials, which included the arts, and I thought ‘the arts are absolutely essential, they’ve been keeping me going through this whole thing’ and that was when I knew I wanted to do some acting lessons and see where it goes,” she added.

Johann Persson  The cast of NyeJohann Persson

Nye tells the origin story of the NHS

She said performing in Nye, her theatre debut, with Sheen had been a treat.

“He’s a phenomenal actor. Being in the room and watching his process has been just brilliant, especially so early on in my career,” she said.

She said from the first day of rehearsal, his passion for the project was clear.

“When Michael introduced himself, he mentioned how he used to do sports but found it wasn’t his thing,” she said.

“For him being able to do a play like this at the National Theatre and Wales Millennium Centre feels like representing his country and really standing up there for his country – I’ve just carried that with me throughout this whole thing.

“To be doing that now in Cardiff, it’s almost like playing on home turf. It feels amazing.”

Dr Otung has been working occasional hospital shifts while starring in Nye but will return to her job full time when the production ends it run next month.

How does she feel about going back to the day job?

“I feel really positive about it,” she said.

She plans to carry on acting alongside her work as a doctor and said the experience had made her more passionate about the NHS than ever.

“I think [being in the play has] really made me realise that the NHS hasn’t always been there,” she said.

“It’s not something we should take for granted.”

Johann Persson  Dr Otung (next to Sheen ) and the cast of NyeJohann Persson

Dr Otung (next to Sheen) and the cast of Nye are currently performing at Wales Millennium Centre

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