TO Oran Mór, last week, to see the latest in the Play, Pie And Pint summer season of Classic Cuts; in this case, a 50-minute version of Don Quixote adapted by young London-based writer Ben Lewis.
The play begins, the setting is a suburban house near Glasgow; and it soon becomes clear that James Smillie’s delightful Don is not the eccentric old knight of Cervantes’s imagination, but a modern British pensioner beginning to lose his grip on reality, mounting fierce battles against the new wind-turbines near his house, treating his grandson Sandy like a hapless squire, and falling madly in love with his exasperated carer, a robust young South African woman with a fondness for beer.
What Lewis has done, in other words, is to transform Don Quixote into a story about dementia, and about an old man’s quest for meaning and dignity at a time when his mind is falling apart; it’s an idea that chimes beautifully with the dream-like atmosphere of Cervantes’s great novel, and it’s beautifully executed by Lu Kemp’s cast.
It’s not, though, the first play about dementia I’ve seen that week; Justin Young’s In My Father’s Words, now at Dundee Rep, chronicles the decline of a 90-year-old Canadian who, as his mind fails, suddenly starts to speak again in the Gaelic language of his childhood. And in recent times, it seems the same theme has been almost inescapable in English-speaking theatre. There have been at least three other plays on the subject in recent Play, Pie And Pint seasons. Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point company touched upon it in the recent Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler, and opened a new show at last month’s Brighton Festival which revolves specifically around it.
When leading Irish playwright Frank McGuinness created his new family drama The Hanging Gardens for the Abbey Theatre, last autumn, it too focused on the decaying mind of the powerful father of the family. And the acclaimed Scottish theatre-maker Cora Bissett is also working on a project inspired by new approaches to the treatment of dementia.
So what are audiences to make of a theatre scene gripped by such a dominant theme? A few years ago, there seemed to be endless plays that revolved around revelations of child abuse; almost as if playwrights had all attended the same writers’ workshop, and decided that this was the topic of the moment.
Yet it takes only a brief glance at the creative origins of all these projects, and at the time-scale of their development, to see that this is not the case. What we’re looking at is not imitation or group-think, but something much more interesting: the role of theatre in supporting the gradual emergence into collective recognition of social phenomena previously hidden, or in some way under-acknowledged. Dementia is becoming a more widespread problem, as increasing numbers of people live into their late 80s and 90s; around 23 million people in Britain – a third of the population – now have a close family member or friend affected by it.
What writers and artists make of a phenomenon like dementia, though, is something that goes far beyond the recording of a social problem. In a post-humanist age when the intrinsic value of human beings is increasingly questioned – and when gravely ill and dependent people are increasingly framed as enduring “undignified”, worthless lives – the act of dramatising dementia opens up a series of profound questions about what we mean by personality, about how we use language to construct our world, and about what remains of us when our mental powers begin to fail. And although the disintegration of the human mind is not a cheerful subject for drama, our theatre-makers are increasingly demonstrating that it is a rich, productive and surprising one; with meanings that soar far beyond the detail of dementia as a disease, into huge, perennial questions about what makes us human, and how we deal, through both tragedy and comedy, with the inevitability of our decline and fall.