'Kipling and John Updike helped me survive a stroke': How actors reading aloud from classic works aided one man's recovery



21:00 GMT, 11 August 2012

At first, he believed he was still dreaming. Two months after suffering a massive stroke, Max Stafford-Clark woke up one morning to find a woman sitting on the end of his hospital bed, reading to him aloud, in the majestic tones of a classically trained actress.

‘I can’t quite remember what she was reciting – I think it was Kipling,’ he recalls. ‘She had this wonderful voice, all elegant vowels and crisp consonants. I thought I’d woken up at the Royal Shakespeare Company.’

Max – once artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre – was 65 when he collapsed, suddenly, six years ago. The stroke was caused by three blood clots in his brain – which he says might have been due to his unremitting diet of sausage, bacon and eggs.

Life-enhancing therapy: Max and his wife, the playwright Stella Feehily

Life-enhancing therapy: Max and his wife, the playwright Stella Feehily whom he married in August 2010

At first it left him unable to walk, wash or dress himself, or even put on his own socks without help. A neurologist told him later he was lucky to survive at all.

Recovery was only possible, he says, thanks to the unstinting support of his partner, Irish playwright Stella Feehily, 42, whom he married in August 2010.

Despite being left with ‘a limp like Captain Ahab’s’ and ‘a fairly useless left arm’, these days he is as busy as he ever was and back at the helm of Out Of Joint, the London-based theatre company he founded in 1993, which has put on work by such prominent playwrights as David Hare and Caryl Churchill.

Yet Max says that what helped him survive a gruelling five months of rehabilitation in hospital were the readings of poems and fiction, carried out by professional actors. The scheme is provided by the charity Interact, which last year sent some 200 actors to read to more than 5,000 patients in hospitals across the UK, with the aim of lifting their morale and aiding recovery.

The initiative is backed by specialists such as Lalit Kalra, Professor of Stroke Services at King’s College Hospital, London, which was one of the first UK hospitals to sign up to Interact service when it began 12 years ago.

He stresses that there is little formal research on the topic, but says he has personally seen hundreds of stroke patients benefit from being read to aloud. ‘Two out of every three people who have a stroke are left disabled and need to stay in hospital for weeks or months for rehabilitation,’ he says.

Road to recovery: A neurologist told Max he was lucky to survive the stroke

Road to recovery: A neurologist told Max he was lucky to survive the stroke

‘These patients often feel demotivated and isolated. And their time with professional staff such as physios and speech therapists is very limited.

‘Being read to has an effect on their sense of motivation and self-esteem, and this in turn helps them get the best out of their therapies.

‘After a stroke, many people have language problems. They may recognise words but may not understand what they mean. The effect has not been measured but it is possible that repeatedly exposing someone to the spoken word stimulates the brain’s speech pathways, facilitating recovery.

‘This might entail either the damaged pathways starting to recover or other undamaged areas taking over the functions of the damaged parts.

‘Also, a lot of recovering people have speech problems and stop speaking altogether because they lack confidence. Having this one-to-one interaction encourages people to overcome their inhibitions and start using speech.’

Before his stroke Max had been a voracious reader, but afterwards found it depressingly difficult. ‘My left peripheral vision [which enables the eye to see objects outside the direct line of vision] was damaged by the stroke,’ he says.

After that surprise first reading – by an actress called Sara Kestelman, who has performed at the National Theatre, London, as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company – he was read to by a young woman just out of drama school, while on the stroke ward at the Whittington Hospital, London.

‘I had been struggling with a new novel called The Terrorist by John Updike, which someone had given me, so I asked her to pick up where I’d left off. She recognised me and must have been nervous.’ To his embarrassment the next pages of the Updike book featured vivid descriptions of sex. ‘Nevertheless she acquitted herself very well – she wasn’t thrown by the content,’ he recalls.

Being read to aloud was, he says, ‘incredibly valuable and very touching. In hospital you can feel very alone with your physical functions –you sleep, you eat, you have physiotherapy. Being read to brings you out of yourself and reminds you there is a world beyond the hospital’.

He has since become an enthusiastic supporter of Interact. Actors are paid a small sum to spend about two hours on each stroke ward, with three to four sessions a week in many hospitals.

'Actors know how to hold someone's attention and bring a story to life using characterisation and accents'

‘Actors know how to hold someone’s attention and bring a story to life using characterisation and accents,’ says Nirjay Mahindru, the charity’s chief executive.

‘They will pick up on a patient’s interests and try to choose a suitable story or poem from our library. It might be about animals, the Second World War, romance – or even gardening. Many patients like to be read stories and poems from their schooldays – such as Wordsworth’s Daffodils.’

Many stroke patients are left with damaged vision or may simply be unable to concentrate sufficiently to read by themselves, he adds. ‘They will often respond to the stories by talking about their own experiences and memories, which is key to their recovery.’

The charity currently operates in 22 hospitals but Mahindru would like to expand.

Another eminent supporter of Interact is thriller writer Ruth Rendell – creator of the iconic Inspector Wexford – whose parents both suffered strokes in their early 70s. Her Swedish mother, Ebba, died shortly after a stroke and her father, Arthur, was left seriously disabled. Baroness Rendell, 82, says: ‘I love being read to aloud myself and I love reading aloud. Interact provides a very important service. It does not depend on drugs or surgery, just actors reading stories. It’s wonderful.’

Max, meanwhile, has adjusted to his vision problems and is again able to read himself: he gets through 60 books and 120 plays annually.

Recalling the months in hospital, he says he found the contact with actors life-enhancing. ‘My life had been spent with actors and this is what I was missing in hospital. The scheme meant I was back in touch with that aspect. It made me determined to get out of hospital and back into the theatre.’

Actors are so often out of work, he adds. ‘Employing them to do this is ingenious – it gives them the impetus to do some good.’

Interactions is a new collection of short stories from Interact, with contributions from Ruth Rendell, Seamus Heaney, Alan Ayckbourn and Nell Dunn, among others. Published by Roast Books, 15.99.