Writer: Nessah Muthy
Director: Helena Bell
Reviewer: Grace Patrick
There’s nothing worse than watching someone you love go through dementia. It’s absolutely brutal: the person can change beyond recognition, and at the same time they may no longer recognise you. Your ability to comfort and to connect is all too often destroyed, and it’s this deep and aching pain that Sundowning by Nessa Muthy is built around.
Sundowning is the phenomenon in which dementia sufferers experience considerably more confusion and distress towards the evening. As the hours pass they frequently become more and more agitated. It’s a very real thing, and this play handles it admirably.
Grief lies absolutely at the heart of Sundowning in several different senses. Muthy’s inspiration comes in part from her own grandmother’s experience of dementia, and this individual history shines through. There are moments so totally personal and unvarnished that they likely could never have been written without at least some degree of real-life engagement with the subject matter.
A three-woman play, Sundowning explores the path of a woman and her niece, as they are forced to face up to not only their personal histories of difference but also their dichotomous approaches to how the dementia care of their mother/grandmother should happen. With one representing the excessively romantic and optimistic, offering up shoplifted coconut oil as a “cure”, and the other all too grounded, convinced that a little physical violence is inevitable and that playing along with delusions or fantasies is somewhere between time wasting and deceptive, they’re very clearly representative of our society’s often polarised views on dementia care.
While this forms an interesting backdrop to the main discussion, it sometimes feels a little superfluous: plots become tangled and are then dropped prematurely, not always adding very much to the play. Even with a reduction in the web of subplots, it would benefit even more to see the core issues a little less obscured.
However, the play’s strongest aspect is the incredibly nuanced approach it takes to its virtually impossible to navigate subject matter. It’s easy in theatre to write off dementia sufferers as scary and even malicious, or to detract from their personal value and only portray their condition. On the other hand, Muthy’s script takes a far more nuanced approach, complemented by Hazel Maycock’s fantastic potrayal of the woman living with dementia. Through their combined efforts and talent, dementia becomes just a facet of the person, rather than their entire identity.
Sundowning is probably one of the most sensitive portrayals of dementia seen on stage. It doesn’t tiptoe around it, but it never seems to take advantage of it either. While some areas could use a little tightening, this is generally a lovely, emotive piece of theatre.
Runs until 3 November 2018 | Image: Robert Day