Sunday 16 June 2019

When The Light Leaves - Theatre Review

What: When The Light Leaves
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Rory Godbold
Directed by: Jayde Kirchert
Performed by: Tomas Parrish, Michelle Robertson, Leigh Scully, and Veronica Thomas
Set by: Stu Brown
Costumes by: Aislinn Naughton
Lighting by: Gina Gascoigne
Sound by: Imogen Cygler
Stage Management by: Teri Steer
Leigh Scully and Tomas Parrish
 As of Wednesday next week Victoria's new voluntary assisted dying laws will come into force, hopefully changing the face of respectful end of life decision making in this state forever. If you need reminding why this is a good thing, or have not yet been fully convinced in the first place, make your way down to La Mama Courthouse to see When The Light Leaves. It will all become perfectly clear.

The topic of euthanasia has been in hot discussion in the Australian landscape for decades. In 1995 the Northern Territory briefly had laws allowing it and Dr Phillip Nitschke was the first medical professional in the world to administer a lethal injection in this situation. He managed to help four people pass away with dignity and respect before the federal government closed the loophole which allowed the Northern Territory to go rogue.

Since then there has been much debate across Australia and the world about whether people have the right to choose how to die, and whether they can be assisted once they have made the decision. In Melbourne there have been several plays on the issue (The Window Outside, The Magnolia Tree) and on SBS you can watch the American TV series Mary Kills People which deals with this question too.  It is kind of unbelievable to think it has taken this long for any state in Australia to try again. How many people have suffered needlessly in that time?

In 2017 Godbold wrote a story called I Give You My Life which was inspired by his father's horrific attempt to put himself out of the misery of an agonising death from esophageal cancer using nembutal. Sadly he was too far gone to swallow it all and the damage it caused only added to the pain and trauma of the situation for himself and those around him. Kirchert saw Godbold's work at La Mama Explorations and has given Godbold the opportunity to develop the play into what is now presented as When The Light Leaves.

When The Light Leaves is the story of Dan (Parrish) who is suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he only has 6 months to a year to live. As he wastes away we see how his lover Liam (Scully) and his sister Kate (Thomas) deal with the situation. It is especially complicated because their mother has dementia so both siblings are trying to maneuver within that landscape as well. Robertson plays the home-visit nurse who tries to help Dan manage his pain throughout his decline.

The play begins with Dan giving a nightmarish monologue about the physical decline of the body (or the skeleton as he calls it) during the final stages of cancer. He talks about the skin spiltting as it is stretched across bones and other very visceral effects. This show is not for the squeamish! A simple abstracted stage created by Brown, with perfectly complementary and striking lighting from Gascoigne add to the maelstrom of darkness and despair.

In fact, one of the brilliant features of this show is Kirchert has managed to engage all of the elements of performance making - script/acting/lights/sound/set/costume - and have them work synchronously together to tell this story with massive impact. I know this should be a given but it happens far to rarely in my experience. There are not a lot of directors out there who actually envisage their productions in such entirety and you can really see the difference when they do.

I love that the team has gone minimalist and so abstracted because the work is full of incredibly emotional content and to push the realism would turn it schmaltzy. The choices in this production allows the ugliness and pain to stand starkly in the space with nowhere to hide. Some essential(?) props do hang from the ceiling and when they are used they swing like a pendulum, signalling the clock ticking away on Dan's life as he becomes more and more frail and destroyed by his disease. Cygler's crackling soundscape - mirroring the electrical seizures in Dan's brain - is a powerful choice too!

I do think, perhaps, those swinging props are over used. It is a fine line between using a prop like that to it's fullest and using it too much. Liam's tantrum scene crosses that line in my opinion, and also the use of it in telephone conversations drove me crazy. However I loved the overall idea and aesthetic and what it did to the dynamics of the space.

Scully and Parrish are mind blowingly good as a couple trying to negotiate a lifetime of loving through a tiny keyhole of a horrible lingering death. I also enjoyed Thomas's overly distraught portrayal of the sister. It reminded me that there is always one person in every family who makes everything about them.

For me, Robertson was a bit too aloof. I feel the writing indicates the nurse is much more sympathetic and tortured about what it happening and what she is allowed (and not allowed) to do about it than Robertson shows us. And she is way to attached too that tea cup!

I am just being picky now. The reality is When The Light Leaves is a powerful and timely story and I thank Godbold for having the courage to write it and Kirchert for bringing it to us in such a powerful way. It's raging empathy will leave you breathless.

4 Stars

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