Writer: Chris Larner
Director: Hannah Eidinow
Review: Harry Stern
This piece of work is devastating. Devastatingly real and devastatingly sad. Its wit, its perception, its poetry, its gravitas and its triviality are the very stuff of humanity. All life and all death, as it were, is here. Yet at the same time it is uplifting. A simple tragedy of an ordinary woman taking the decision to die.
Alison Lee, an actor turned teacher, mother of one and sufferer of Multiple Sclerosis took her own life at Dignitas in Switzerland in 2010. She asked her ex-husband and firm friend to help her achieve this aim. Chris Larner acceded to her wishes and, in recording the process as a piece of theatre, has created a lasting and heartbreaking memorial which consists of storytelling that transcends the normal bounds of theatre. Because it is true and because it is real. It is also intensely personal and honourable. How Larner gets up night after night to tell such a personal story defies both analysis and comprehension.
With director Hannah Eidinow, Larner creates a whole world with a black box and a black chair. It is exquisite in its simplicity. The audience is transported, in a chronological mosaic, through the couple’s meeting in the 1980s through the birth of their only son and the immediate onset of Alison’s MS, to her harrowingly prosaic end in a blue portacabin, fittingly in a dead end road. Along the way the observations on how we humans live our lives are sharp. Some are warm and funny, some are deeply critical. Some leave indelible memories. When Larner stumbles into a store containing the no-longer needed mobility apparatus of the recently deceased it is almost unbearable. “A charnel house, a charnel house” he cries, echoing Vladimir’s observation on the inevitability of the end of human life in Waiting for Godot. The ramshackle NHS and other British bureaucracies get a pasting – “They stole her spirit and replaced it with fear”. The orderly, clean and tidy Swiss are beautifully understated and accorded some wry affection. The final irony is that Alison, a tidiness fanatic, chose to die in Switzerland where “they even sweep the motorways”.
Larner’s writing is taut and unsentimental. At one moment he is taking poetic flight and painting word pictures of penetrating clarity. Life becomes “the million-petaled flower of being here”. The fixed grin of the bravely resolute is incarnated as a “permasmile”. At other moments we laugh at the atypical lateness of the Swiss doctor and the methodical thoroughness of the Dignitas staff. Larner’s skill as an actor is to the fore as he impersonates not only Alison herself but her sister, her son and everyone else who populates this story of an ordinary set of folk pitched into an extraordinary course of action. The fact that the piece is disencumbered by set should not detract from the simple effectiveness of the lighting design.
At seventy minutes long it goes by in a flash and suddenly Alison’s voice is heard saying the words we instinctively were expecting her to say – “I don’t want to die. I just don’t want to live like this.” A touch of humour as Larner finally reads her the wrong bit of a book, a touch of pathos when he can’t say goodbye but chooses ‘I remember you dancing” instead and then she’s gone.
What is left is a vivid memory of her and a realisation that she will always be there as Larner offers a gesture of acknowledgement and love to the empty chair.
Photo: Geraint Lewis
An Instinct for Kindness runs at Pleasance London’s StageSpace until Sunday, 24 March 2013. For tickets and more information please visit the website www.pleasance.co.uk/islington/events/an-instinct-for-kindness–2