When: 24 July - 4 August 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Joseph Sherman
Directed by: John Bolton
Composed by: Christopher Marlow Bolton
Performed by: Christopher Marlow Bolton and Joseph Sherman
Set by: Brian Lipson
Lighting by: Emmie Turner
Stage managed by: Emmie Turner
Sherman is the grandson of Russian Jewish lineage from the city of Odessa. He is the son of two parents whose lives end in the tragic miasma of Alzheimer's. Sherman is also a doctor as well as a theatre maker.
Last Words is essentially a story told in 3 acts. Act 1 follows the simple oral traditions as Sherman talks, sings and dances his way through stories of great courage. His maternal grandparents were in the lucky 100 000 Jews who escaped the 'forgotten' Odessa Holocaust. The remaining 90 000 where killed in horrific ways. Perhaps one of the saddest moment is when Sherman jokes about them remembering a time when Jews didn't have to carry special papers.
After their return to their home city, his mother (Rita) and father (Misha) meet. His father was at home in the seedy world of graft and black markets, but his mother not quite as much. One of the beautiful features of this part of the story is the details such as his mother pulling down a curtain and making a dress for their first date. The entire first act is a dance between world history, family memoirs, and personal recollections.
The family was allowed to leave Odessa in the Jewish emigration which came out of the USA/USSA SALT I deal in 1971 - also known as the 'Wheat for Jews' deal between Brezhnev and Nixon. I think no other people in the world must be as aware of how the value of a human life fluctuates, like shares on the stock exchange, than the Jewish community.
As Sherman tells the family's migration story and settlement in Melbourne I admit to getting a bit lost over who is who, but then I always get lost with names in most Russian stories so I just settled back and enjoyed the rise and fall of the dance. I got the gist and that is the main point. A turbulent relationship, some fiery years and then a sad descent into dementia was the destiny of the Sherman parents.
In act 2 we meet Dr Sherman. Complete with blackboard and props which light up the good doctor gives a lively lecture on Alzheimer's as a disease. It's history, it's biological mapping and progression, and why it is so hard to combat. I loved this part. Not only because of the good information, but Sherman is the kind of lecturer I always adore - feisty, knowledgeable, and passionate! My one tiny disappointment is I think Grant (lighting) could have gently shifted the architecture for this section to help relieve some of the environmental tedium.
Act 3 brings what some people might call 'real theatre'. Engaging in all the theatrical tropes Sherman is joined on stage by Bolton who plays gentle droning lullabies and takes on Sherman's persona as Sherman becomes his father - lost and confused and down right grumpy. Or is this a portent of Sherman's own destiny?
The black and white gallery of photos Lipson designed, the samovar, the eagles, the jewels, the piano become a labyrinth of detached recollections for the suffering Misha. What was a glorious album of shared memories under Grant's simple open white wash in acts 1 and 2 becomes floating oddities teasing and taunting Sherman elder in his distress as the stage darkens and fractures into corridors and bubbles of light and colour. Sherman junior eventually leaving the piano to help his papa shower and defecate, trying to soothe yet inadvertently creating distress at the same time. If Alzheimer's has touched your life you know of what I am speaking.
Last Words is tri-lingual (English, Russian, and Yiddish) and what this allows is for us to let go at times and just experience a confusion which is nothing like, yet reminiscent of, the experiences of victims of this disease. At times Sherman translates, at times Bolton translates, and then there are moments when no translation is offered - except through performance. It is a waltz. The waltz of three generations.
Last Words is beautiful if, perhaps, a tad too long. Act 1 and 3 could possibly do with some trimming. Having said that, it is such an important work on two levels. The first is the Alzheimers awareness and conversation and the second is the reminder of the times we came through last century and a subtle - and perhaps unintentional - warning to never forget.
Never forget is a phrase which has been commandeered to mean don't forget the sacrifices made by our service men in the World Wars. Last Words reminds us what we must not forget is why those wars were necessary. It also reminded me to work harder to gather my own family history because that too should never be forgotten - by me at least.
Last Words is a beautiful and sorrowful story about the inevitabile fate for 1 out of every 3 people in our community. It also a warning to value and cherish our families, our histories, and to understand there comes a time when the cared for must step up and become the carer. It is a call to arms as well. We need to find out why some people get this disease and others don't. We still don't know anywhere near enough!