Words by Ed King / Pics by Graeme Braidwood
It’s probably just red car syndrome, but as I make my way to see The Death Show at Birmingham REP I find myself stuck in traffic and staring at a poster for The Maze Runner – Death Cure, before rolling adverts remind me that at dog tracks across the country ‘you bet, they die’. I squash two snails when I get off the bus.
I eventually arrive at the theatre (after taking my life in my hands traversing the Paradise Forum road works) and run into a friend who is taking her daughter to see Coco – Pixar’s latest big screen animation about the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. The closing words to last night’s Monty Python film continue to circle around the back of my head, as my friend’s daughter tells me about the “magical adventure of a boy who learns to be a musician from his dead ancestors,” a context she seems quite at peace with. My friend’s husband, a vicar, is busy with a funeral. Fate is laughing and apparently leading today; religion is missing in many corners of this theatre.
The Death Show is the culmination of years of research from ‘theatre makers’ and self confessed ‘thanatophobes’ Lucy Nicholls and Antonia Beck, after the duo turned their curiously macabre small talk into an original stage production. It’s a huge subject without an end, both literally and figuratively, and the challenge to anyone tackling this topic is the seesaw of content and context.
But this is theatre, and on entering The Door we are greeted by Nicholls and Beck dressed head to toe in respectful black – handing out tissues because “things can get a little sad and teary.” Centre stage there is a full sized coffin, with a coffin shaped ‘doorway’ stood upright and stage left. An order of service is handed to each audience member, with funeral favourite ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ playing through the house speakers as we take our seats. The Death Show is clearly a show about death. And, just as clearly, there is no escape from it.
The premise is a funeral to our hosts and the dearly departed, who refer to themselves in the third person, mourning “the death of Lucy and Antonia”. After a short hat picked declaration of what sent the pair to their graves (which if it isn’t set up, may indeed prove the existence of a divine being) we kick of as every funeral should, with legacy. Or the purported achievements that can more serve to make sense of a life, rather than accept the loss of one. And whilst matinee crowds are not the easiest to make laugh, by the time we are watching the superimposed faces of Nicholls and Beck on the Kardashian babies the healthy (no pun intended) afternoon audience is in comfortable good humour.
But the mood turns, as we become voyeurs to the emotions that compelled Nicholls and Beck to write The Death Show in the first place. Namely, the organ failing fear that there is nothing but void. Following their initial meeting, a careful balance of abject horror and camaraderie, Nicholls and Beck embark on a creative challenge to bring ‘death out of the shadows’ – researching their subject with hands on experiences, which in turn make up the segments of The Death Show.
The first step on their Arts Council funded path to enlightenment is with a pair of “angry” Australians, who seem intent to “excrete death” whilst enjoying “a good work out” and some loosened hamstrings. Perverse, but I can believe it’s happening somewhere. Next up is the equally obnoxious and “more feminine” spiritual self help group, where Nicholls and Beck are encouraged to “breath in through your lady mouths” before affecting the faux shamanic monikers you’d hear on a marketing department team training day. Or in Moseley.
Whilst the rib dig at Down Under gets a little farcical, and arguably a touch… achem, both group experiences are an engaging mirror to the absurdity that can surround ‘those that know’. Spirituality, for want of a better word, is often a blank cheque for idiots to enlist more idiots in an exercise of group narcissism; Nicholls and Beck respond with parody and a sharp exit, as their journey continues. Answer my question about Descartes or just fucking hug me please.
Then it’s onto the more serious endeavour of preparing a body – a duty Nicholls and Beck performed whilst shadowing an undertaker as part of their research. Mental note: when a funeral director asks for some clothes for your loved one to be dressed in, don’t forget the underwear. Finally, we walk though the somewhat failed attempt to engage with terminally ill patients at a hospice; a brutally important avenue of exploration, but one Nicholls and Beck candidly recognise didn’t go as they would have hoped – playfully and painfully displaying the chasm of this contact.
We wrap The Death Show to further honestly, namely that “we don’t have the answers… but we do have this rather wonderful dance” – as Nicholls and Beck display what makes their lives worth living, and in turn encourage us to say “cheers to the little things”. It’s a poignant summary, but one the writing and presentation have stayed true to across the narrative; an audience are not going to find the answers to life, death and everything at 2:30pm on a Saturday afternoon, just as the scriptwriters didn’t after years of research.
The point, I guess, is to be together whilst we work out what to do in the absence of any answers at all – and this is certainly where art can help us. Or, as The Death Show press release states, ‘to laugh, cry, stick two fingers up at the grim reaper and discover why talking about death is ultimately life affirming.’
Whilst some of us scream at the bottom of a bottle of bourbon, Nicholls and Beck took the challenge of turning their own self reflection into something to share – resulting in comedy, self deprecation, biological facts, and a Breakfast Club fist pump in the face of fear. The Death Show is a competent contribution to the bottomless pit conversation about our own mortality, delivered through a beautifully balanced story of hope, humour and fear. Plus it stands ram rod straight in the face of questions that can break a person in two – something, if nothing else, an audience member can take from this production that will hopefully help them with every day until their last.
Death terrifies me, to the point that I am obsessed with trying to unravel it, and I have long suspected that there is no amount of time, money or research that will bring about a collective understanding. ‘Like a room of blind people trying to explain the colour blue to each other’, is the line I land on. So, what am I doing on a Saturday afternoon in a room full of strangers? What are any of us doing here? Because what else can you do, especially when the sour mash has all dried up and there are no vocal chords left to tug.
The Death Show is also, quite simply, an extremely funny play. And if Christ, Brahma, Moses and whatever clandestine lizards there may be in The White House can’t give us any definitive proof, then that’s probably all we’ve got. Well, either that or insanity. Or song. Or even a little of all three, after all you know what they say. Some things in life are bad…
The Death Show
The Death Show tours across February, with dates in Leeds, London and Bristol – as presented by Outer Circle Arts. For direct event info, including full tour details and links to online ticket sales, visit www.thedeathshow.co.uk
For more from the Birmingham REP, including full production listings and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk
For more on Outer Circle Arts, visit www.outercirclearts.co.uk
For more from BrumYODO, visit www.brumyodo.org.uk