DEATH has been one of the main themes of drama since the dawn of civilisation; but never like this.
And No More Shall We Part
Star rating: * * * *
Mark Thomas: Bravo Figaro!
Star rating: * * * *
Star rating: * * *
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
Traditional tragedies showed us death for a reason, death at the hands of angry gods, or death surrounded by political circumstance; now we stare transfixed at the prospect of individual oblivion, as if it represented some kind of injustice that should be put right.
Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part – first seen in Australia three years ago, and now revived by Hampstead Theatre in a superb production by James Macdonald, starring Bill Paterson and Dearbhla Molloy – is part of a wave of current drama about the messy and agonising business of death, and what we should do about it. Pam and Don are an argumentative but devoted couple in their sixties, with two grown children, when Pam is told that the cancer she has been treated for is now terminal.
From the start, she is calmly determined that she does not want the kind of “natural” death process to which she seems doomed. So to Don’s great pain, she decides after some online research to try to end her own life; and with the help of a couple of flashbacks, Holloway’s 80-minute play leads us through what she intends to be her last evening, up to and beyond the moment when she sends Don away, so she can die in peace.
Macdonald’s production provides a feast of world-class acting from two of the finest performers on the British stage. Dearbhla Molloy makes something subtle and fine out of Holloway’s idealised portrait of an infinitely loving woman calmly arranging her own end; Paterson is simply superb as Don, devastated, rebellious, helpless, and grumpily, profoundly male.
In the end, though, the play only compels us to live vicariously through an experience that, directly or indirectly, will come to all of us soon enough; and if its argument is that there is much we can reasonably do to change that – in terms of law, medicine, or rights – then the sheer quality of this production, and the irreplaceable humanity of the characters it creates, guarantees that it fails to persuade us.
Mark Thomas’s Bravo Figaro!, by contrast – another step in Thomas’s impressive shift from stand-up comedy to complete solo theatre – is a story about death, or the imminence of death, that tries with terrific energy to explore some of the shadowlands between being and non-being. Bravo Figaro! is a portrait of Thomas’s father, a south-London builder with a large family, a violent streak, a strong contempt for the middle classes, and a vast and surprising self-taught passion for opera.
So when his father becomes ill with a degenerative disease that attacks both his body and his mind, Thomas is moved – despite their ambivalent relationship – to try to give him a gift that will mean something to him, despite his growing confusion; and the answer lies in the music his father loves.
In a sense, it’s a simple tale, with no obvious resolution. Yet there’s something about every moment of this thoughtful one-hour show that smacks of reality; of the messy mixture of magic and squalor that is everyday life, but also of the complex social history of Britain, in the half-century since Thomas’s birth, and the fact that there are many kinds of death, not all of which may claim us at the same moment.
There’s plenty of death, too, in Simon Stephens’s new play Morning, premiered by the Lyric Hammersmith at the Traverse; although this play belongs more to the avalanche of shows on this year’s Fringe about a troubled and distressed generation of young people. The central character is Stephanie, a desperately disturbed teenager whose single mother is dying of cancer at home, while her best friend, Cat, prepares to leave town for university. On the eve of her mother’s death, Stephanie snaps; and a sadistic sexual joke at the expense of her admirer, Stephen, escalates into a hideous act of violence.
Stephens is a hugely talented writer, perhaps the most widely produced on the current British stage; and he conjures up this nightmare vision of a totally lost girl with a terrific voyeuristic vividness, helped by a frighteningly intense central performance from Scarlet Billham.
By the end of an hour, though, when Stephens has Stephanie write a final Karl Marx quote on the wall, it becomes apparent that Stephens is a prime exponent of what Marx would have called “bourgeois pessimism”, or the thrilling of the comfortable with a message of utter disgust and hopelessness that offers us permission to do absolutely nothing to change anything.
Compared with the showy misery of Morning, Ontroerend Goed’s unrelenting All That Is Wrong – which began this year’s Fringe cycle of plays about young people – is a model of integrity, economy, and truthfulness under extreme pressure; while Stephens pursues a fashionable path to nowhere.
• And No More Shall We Part until 26 August, today 12:15pm. Mark Thomas: Bravo Figaro! until 26 August, today 10am. Morning until 19 August, today 5:30pm.