Liam Farrell: Life is a stage, and acting skills are essential

'You could at least act like you're interested, doc,' said Joe. Mea culpa, he was right, he deserved that depth of commitment.

While Dustin Hoffman was filming Marathon Man, his ‘method’ acting technique was to prepare for the role by not sleeping and living rough, eating slugs and slathering himself with manure, all endured for the purpose of getting into character.

His legendary co-star Laurence Olivier was aghast when he heard the extreme lengths his colleague had gone to; ‘Acting, dear boy,’ he protested. ‘It's called acting.’

George Eliot’s Mr. Lydgate had ‘the medical accomplishment of looking perfectly grave whatever nonsense was talked to him’, underlining how the importance of the masquerade has not changed over the centuries.

GK Chesterton reckoned that artifice is the ultimate demonstration of human genius. No cripple can appear as crippled as a fully able-bodied actor pretending to be crippled, no genuinely sympathetic lister can appear half as interested as someone who has read the textbooks and knows exactly how to fake it.

I briefly considered the ‘Method’ technique, i.e. living with Joe’s mother and sitting in an armchair watching TV for a week, eating a high carbohydrate, high saturated-fat diet, but such are the time-pressures on family practice, we’re only allowed six minutes per patient, and don’t have time for what would be a fascinating (and very fattening) social experiment.

So I tried a bit of improv, straightening my back, opening my eyes, stifling a yawn. Boy, I thought, even the Olivier approach is damn hard work; in contrast, appearing disinterested, my default, energy-saving state, is much more restful and efficient.

Because I am sometimes A Good Doctor, I knew the role I had to play; the textbooks call it ‘active’ listening, and it includes (I kid you not) nodding, and saying ‘Um’ occasionally. But I’m an untrained amateur; a few weeks in acting school would do wonders for patient satisfaction.

Not exactly King Lear, I know, but enough for me to ham up sincerity, interest, fascination, compassion, bestiality etc, the character traits the (very) lucrative pre-med aptitude tests look for and which are apparently desirable in doctors.

Though usually best displayed by the noble horse.

  • Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Follow him on Twitter @drlfarrell

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