In his latest piece of autofiction, Franco-Uruguayan playwright Sergio Blanco has decided that he wants to die by assisted suicide. He’s also decided to gift his corpse to a young Iranian necrophiliac interned in Bethlem Royal Hospital. If you’re put off by that synopsis, that’s understandable (and may explain the many empty seats in Church Hill Theatre). Yet When You Walk Over My Grave is so much more than its unusual subject matter. It transcends these taboo themes, offering a complex and multi-layered exploration of life, death, and finding meaning in both.
Reality is suspended almost immediately as the actors onstage – Sebastián Serantes, Felipe Ipar, and Gustavo Saffores – introduce themselves and describe the circumstances surrounding their “deaths” (which all coincidentally occurred while they were rehearsing for the play we’re currently watching). With the exception of a lab coat to distinguish Saffores from his character Dr William Godwin, the actors make little effort to differentiate between their “real” selves and the characters portrayed on stage. It cleverly plays into the increasingly blurred lines between reality and fiction within the play.
And this murkiness never wanes, nor does our curiosity. Blanco’s approach to the concept of autofiction is truly fascinating. There are times when he is both self-indulgent and mocking, having his actors praise his previous work (as the script commands). There are also moments where Ipar and Saffores interrupt the action to interrogate Serantes (who plays the role of Blanco) on what elements are real.
For many, the decision to write a play pairing death and sexual gratification would be distasteful. While a lot of the dialogue is witty or tongue-in-cheek, much of When You Walk Over My Grave‘s complexity comes with Blanco’s exploration of humanity’s fascination with death. Blanco takes the time to explain important matters – starting with the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. In addition to sharing real-life case studies of necrophilia, the playwright explores other artists’ preoccupation with death (and life after it). From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to still life paintings to an excellent montage of TV and film death scenes, Blanco highlights how death is embedded within our culture. Not only this, it permeates what we consider to be beautiful.
Throughout the performance, various visuals are projected behind the actors. The kaleidoscope of words, images, and video footage serve to illustrate what’s happening; whether it’s to help set the scene or stress some symbolic meaning, the visual feast adds to the complexity and brilliance of the material. It may prove a bit overwhelming for audience members who must rely on the subtitles though as there is so much to take in at once. However, it should be highlighted that the show’s translator has done an excellent job in preserving the lyricism of the original Spanish. Shows like this – where companies are able to present their work in its original language – are what make the Edinburgh International Festival such a wonderful celebration of world culture.
For a show that’s so out there, it is surprising that Blanco chooses to end the show with such a hopeful, almost cliché, ending. Perhaps it’s to ensure that the audience doesn’t leave feeling weighed down or traumatised by the lengthy discussions of mortality and necrophilia. What is certain though is that When You Walk Over My Grave will leave an impression – for all the right reasons. Just be ready to have a hard time explaining the plot to your friends.