We Are In Time is about one man dying and thereby prolonging one woman’s life. It’s about the biological miracle of the heart. It’s about a heart transplant, the first of which took place in 1967. It’s about organ donation. It’s about railing against death and embracing life. And it’s about the definition of death – as that changed in the 1960s too- ultimately asking the question: are you really dead if your heart lives on?
Theatre meets classical recital meets choral eulogy meets opera in this brave new work from Untitled Projects. With a reputation for reinventing form, this piece upholds an illustrious tradition. Pamela Carter‘s script is a poem as much as it is a play – economical, witty, sharply observant, and kind. Fortunately, director Stewart Lang is wise enough to let these wonderful words speak for themselves.
Lights up on an austerely clinical set. Reminiscent of an operating theatre, the audience could just as easily be in that slim limbo between life and death. Twelve musicians file into position with their string instruments, and costumes plain enough to not look like scrubs – though they also kind of do. Untitled Projects partner here with Scottish Ensemble, and kudos to all of the musicians who appear perfectly comfortable not only with the choreography, but the complicated, occasionally discordant choral score from Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson.
Amidst the choral narration, Alison O’Donnell shares a brief history of the heart transplant. The first time it happened. The parallel improvements in technology that meant that even when a heart had technically ‘died’, the body and therefore the brain could be assisted to live on. And that bumps us into the ethics. The philosophy. The unending peculiar notion that a dying person, by surrendering a piece of themselves, can extend someone else’s time in this world.
Jodie Landau and Ruby Philogene play our two patients. Landau is a magnetic presence, even when motionless on the operating table. His opening vocals are oddly other worldly: a startling ethereal contrast to the science surrounding him. Philogene is stately and long-suffering in the truest sense of the word, waiting and hoping for a donor. Her enunciation is less clear than Landau’s, meaning some of the story is lost. However in a piece rich with ideas, this is a small loss rather than a significant one.
Alongside all of this, Lewis den Hertog serves up a visual feast. A single large screen slides, silent as nurses’ crocs, across the backdrop to help illustrate the story, to insinuate into the body and show bacteria, pulsating arteries, and other sinister suggestions of life at risk. The musicians read their scores on iPads, continuing the technical sleekness. And a single heroic iPad features a sudden pulsating heart in all its finery.
The piece marvels at many things. That there is such a limited window of opportunity in which a heart transplant can be successful. That organ donation bestows an incredible gift to the donor: a sort of prolonged life. The weirdness of living with a dead person’s heart bumping up against your rib cage. It’s an incredibly emotive topic, yet for all that, the production is curiously unemotional. This could be intentional: a musing on science and the miracle of life rather than a tantrum about the dying of the light.
That said, the exquisite mash up of music, voice and words in the final breathtaking musical piece inspired something a lot like awe in this audience member. Science makes so many apparently impossible feats possible but despite our best tricks, we’re still only human. This finale suggests that’s not such a bad thing.