Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer is a poem about life, loss and the slipping away of memory as Flora, the central character split between four performers, struggles with dementia. In it is a tender, distinctly fragile piece of writing and performance that is offered to its audience in the gentlest of manners. We see Flora as a young woman, an older woman, as a mother, a daughter and somehow we see all of them blurred together or as fragmented moments within a lifetime. For the memory of a person is a fragile thing, and dementia breaks up connections and moments so carelessly. It is a horrific nightmare for the sufferer, and in the case of Flora, Wilson delivers a character whose fragmented memories cascade and float in the space, never quite going anywhere but never standing still either.
It’s undeniable that Autobiographer has rich production elements, although perhaps it is better to call it beautiful. Wilson’s own sound design seamlessly glides through the space, and invades us from every direction as we sit within the centre of the playing space and the audio is transmitted from every side inwards. Audio captured from the world beyond the play is merged with soundscapes and piano melodies that are rich with emotion. Wilson’s sound also adds a layer of theatricality that the text can not present. It distinctly allows for an atmosphere to be explored, for our emotions to be played with and our sense of awareness tested. Increasingly I found myself caught up in the music or sound effects. This, coupled with Ben Pacey’s lighting design and Peter Arnold’s overall design, which sees an endless stream of light bulbs and LED lights that glisten and flicker above our heads, captures the imagination with heartfelt glee.
For a play that manages to capture a certain quality, a feeling of tenderness, care and consideration, Autobiographer is also somewhat disappointing too. Wilson’s piece deals with dementia with such fragility that the piece feels too fragile for its audience to handle; it’s too disjointed and too unwilling to let us in. The pace of the piece is very melodic and whimsical, and even during a heightened moment of tension we never quite rise with it. Dementia is such a challenging disease to project into a theatre space, and Wilon’s fragmented text and performers work well to represent the lost connections of the mind, but Autobiographer misses the emotional and heartbreaking nature of such a disease. It misses the nightmare that it inflicts upon the tormented suffer, and whilst Wilson has created a tender piece she misses the theatrical scope to really show her audience what it means, what it feels like.
Autobiographer does provoke some moments of theatrical clarity, these are centered when all the elements of Wilson’s piece comes together. The soundscape escalates, the lights above flicker repeatedly and die one by one, and standing in the space, are four figures whose eyes plead for us to understand. “I want to go home now” we are told, and within this moment, there is a glimmer of hearts breaking and tears welling up inside us. Yet sadly it doesn’t quite make it. Autobiographer deals with some challenging notions, and presents a poem of much lyrical beauty, but never stirs us from just being observers, observing and not caring, and this just doesn’t feel right.
Autobiographer is playing at the Toynbee Studios until 5 May. For more information and tickets, see the Toynbee Studios website. Photo by Monika Chmierlarz.