Death continues to be one of our society’s last taboos. It’s something we all have to deal with, something few of us enjoy thinking about, and something we tragically struggle to avoid during a pandemic.
So some might consider death to be a bold choice as the topic of a show scheduled to premiere in the (online version of the) Edinburgh Fringe. But that’s exactly what Nottingham-based theatre company, Chronic Insanity, have decided to do with their brand new digital theatre work, 52 Souls.
It’s a pity to reveal the premise of this production because it’s the sort of smartly brilliant thing that you might only contemplate in this remote world we find ourselves in. The show starts with a reminder that when you shuffle a pack of cards, a gigantic number of possible sequences could result. Viewers are then invited to pick up a pack of cards (ideally, a pack you prepared earlier though a digital alternative’s provided), shuffle it, cut it and turn up a card.
The screen then gives you options: suit, then a list of the cards in that suit. You’re invited to select your card – and then a video plays. Writers Nat Henderson and Joe Strickland appear to have written 52 different short monologues, a selection of which are then presented to you in the order your cards decree, over the course of an hour. It’s an ingenious concept, that is slickly executed, with each monologue touching, in some fashion, on the topic of death.
This shuffle of the card deck turned up a soldier talking about his mate who was shot in a freak accident. A physics professor who’s just learnt that the government plan to freeze her remains so they can revive her brain at a future juncture when her discoveries will be more widely appreciated. A counsellor counselling a client on the best way of coping with impending death. A son mourning the under-reported cause of death of his father (daylight saving time – who knew?). A voiceover artist compelled to read an apocalyptic warning to a nation. And in a sudden brush with real life events, an actor reads the note left by Caroline Flack several days before her death.
The intriguing premise loses something in the execution however. That may be down to performances that sometimes feel slightly larger than life – though this may equally be a conscious decision on the part of directors: Henderson, Strickland and Megan Gates. The tech is sometimes bumpy – it’s tricky to go back if you carelessly pick the same card twice, for example. And it can be tricky to take a coherent message from the many varied musings of the particular souls you select.
All of that said, this production deserves a look precisely because it isn’t a story that starts at the beginning and potters along on until the end. It’s 52 different stories of souls, told in a form that makes a virtue out of our constraints and tackles a tough subject to boot.
Maybe we can surmise that there are all sorts of ways that we could potentially die. Some are ‘unluckier’ than others, many are premature, and some are profoundly unjust. But though we’re tempted to think we have in little in common when it comes to the minutiae, we share a fate. So maybe the world would be a better place if we all got a bit better at talking about it.