We’re not very good at talking about death in this country. The British stiff upper lip doesn’t do detail. And it doesn’t give mess as much as a look in.
Which is why Vanishing Point‘s new show is so brilliantly timely. You won’t have escaped the stories of Britain’s ageing population or the anxious hand-wringing about the over-burdened NHS. But whilst we wring out column inches about over-stretched in-home and residential care, end of life care doesn’t get nearly as much press.
Tabula Rasa tells the story of a life ending. Peter has been diagnosed with a brain tumour. His friend, played by Pauline Goldsmith, visits him in his private room in the hospice in which he spends his final weeks. She muses on questions that rarely get aired: would someone dying rather share a room or occupy their own space? What do you take a dying person as a gift? Flowers steal their oxygen. A long novel feels insensitive. And at what point does the dying person cease to be the friend you love – when the painkillers, the panic or the rage take over? Or do we retain a vestige of self until the end?
Peter loved music. In his final angry days, he barks at the nurses, demanding music, despite the fact that the tumour squashing into his brain renders him unable to hear it. As tribute to Peter – or as tribute to too many lives indelicately lost – the play is held aloft by the delicate, almost ethereal music of Arvo Pärt, performed live by Scottish Ensemble. Artistic director Jonathon Morton describes Pärt’s music as a paradox – offering at the same time, “simplicity and unfathomable mystery”. And this feels like a fitting theme for this play: as humans, we’re a blank canvas and a tangled web of consequences of illogical decisions.
This is a beautiful production. As director, co-writer and designer, Matthew Lenton has created a visually stunning tribute to a human life and the people who care for it in its final days. Kai Fischer’s lighting plot teases us with flickers of the people grieving in the shadows at Peter’s funeral who become a chorus of tireless, anonymous NHS staff. Following a brief appearance in a physically and metaphorically bursting-at-the-seams coffin, Peter joins the cast on stage courtesy of some impressive visual effects. And the snow, with thanks to Marcus Sedgwick, is stunning.
It’s not always easy for live classical music to comfortably co-exist with the spoken word in something that still feels like a piece of theatre. But this production pulls it off. The choice of music seems to enhance and even build upon the script, mirroring the stages of confusion, fear and loss, rage and finally, a sort of tranquillity that might accompany the final weeks of a life. Daniel Pioro’s solo, Fratres, is technically difficult – and all the more impressive for the fact that he delivers it while traversing the stage. And Morton’s rendition of the Estonian composer’s most well-known piece is breathtakingly fragile and full of yearning.
So far, so nicely intellectual. But for all that this new work from Vanishing Point is bristling with ideas, it moves beyond politics to present a personal story. Goldsmith tells us about the chaotic birth of her son. Amidst the chaos and the new mother’s heart-breakingly anxious confusion, a single nurse “gave her the only thing she didn’t have: time”. Lenton paints a picture of a health service that’s bursting at the seams but continues to dole out compassion and kindness in a world where each is, too often, in short supply.