Feature: Way Back – laughing in the face of death

Suicide attempts may not be the most obvious material for a comedy, but that’s exactly what daring play Way Back explores as it comes to the Brighton Fringe this month – just a few miles down the coast from its notorious setting, Beachy Head. Following a busy day at work for Carol, a member of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Squad, the piece promises to explore the issues of “suicide, existential crises and disabled toilets”. After five star reviews in Edinburgh for this emerging young theatre company, Way Back is playing a limited run in London before heading south.

I caught up with writer Daniel Henry Kaes to find out how the dark and poignant theme of suicide can raise a laugh. “At face value it does seem a dichotomy, but in fact these two emotions exist side by side in very many aspects of daily life”, he reflects. “You are usually only ever one step away from the contrasting emotion. Life is a spiral, a journey of ups and downs, and this is very much reflected in the play, both tonally and stylistically.” To Kaes, the blending of the two emotions wasn’t a struggle, but an instinctive way of progressing: “Writing this way feels natural to me, and fresh, because the balance of the comic and the poignant – the verbal slapstick and the earnest – means that you never fall into the trap of taking yourself too seriously, or tackling interesting and complex subjects too flippantly.” In fact, he suggests, it can be far more effective on an audience than a straight drama. “It’s also the best way of getting someone to listen to you – nobody likes a preacher!”

The play first came to the stage at the Corpus Playroom in Cambridge – whose boards fostered such renowned talents as Stephen Fry and Sam Mendes – before playing at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Yet the themes may ring a bell with audiences more recently, thanks to the 2014 release of Pascal Chaumeil’s film A Long Way Down: inspired by the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, the film tracks the lives of four characters who meet on a rooftop, intending to end their lives, and opened to what we might politely call ‘mixed reviews’. I asked Kaes how Way Back compares, and whether the book served as inspiration. “I hadn’t actually read Nick Hornby’s novel before completing the first draft of the script, although I did read it once the first run was under way, because a fellow writer friend had mentioned that there were similar themes and approaches in the two works. I absolutely loved the book, but was really disappointed by the film. The screenplay just didn’t seem truthful or insightful and, unlike in the novel, you don’t hear the internal monologues of the characters. In short, it just doesn’t attempt to talk about the suicidal feelings or thought processes of the characters, or any of the key issues. This is what makes Way Back different.”

Is it a coincidence that Kaes independently came to write a comedy about suicide? Or does the reoccurrence of this theme – A Long Way Down, Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular and 2013 play Cheer Up, It Might Never Happen all take a similar approach – point to a wider trend? “I’m usually unaware of being part of a trend until it’s too late!”, Kaes admits. “It’s not a conscious thing, but when it does happen, it’s almost a vindication that these are subjects that artists and audiences alike are drawn to. The reasons in this case must be fairly clear: death is one of the few certainties in this life, but it’s also one of the very few things we know next to nothing about. When there is a suggestion of death, emotions and situations are immediately intensified and this can create great drama.” Yet it’s worth noting that these works certainly have their differences, as Kaes is quick to point out: “Way Back’s take is actually less focused on the end product itself, but more on the redeeming power of humanity and friendships, which gives it a less bitter taste than some other works.”

Despite the artistic interest in discussions of suicide, and Way Back’s mission to explore the issues sensitively, I was curious to know if there had been any negative or uneasy reactions to the blend of comedy and potentially provocative subject matter. After all, even in 2014, suicide and attempted suicide is a largely taboo topic that remains undiscussed by society at large. Yet Kaes is confident his work strikes the right balance and in fact strives towards positive emotions: “Nobody has ever approached us in a negative way, but I don’t think they could feel offended if they’ve watched and understood the play, which has both optimistic and bittersweet tones, and a message of solidarity. Many people have crazy, dark thoughts all the time – not just artists but all types of people – and it must be a comfort to know that there are others out there to support you and who understand.”

Even Kaes will admit there was a moment of doubt, however, when the team took a trip to Beachy Head itself. “For the actors it was tragic, but also extremely useful in noticing the way they moved and feeling this actual, physical weight on their shoulders. But as a writer I was actually wracked with guilt, because suddenly the reality was all around me – the victims suddenly had names, spelled out in pebbles or written on tiny crucifixes. It took the director several moments to calm me down and remind me that there is nothing offensive about how we are handling this sensitive subject.”

“People say you shouldn’t ‘give people ideas’, but in my opinion talking about things like suicide and depression in an open and safe environment is one of the most helpful things you can do”, he adds. “It lets others know that they are not alone. We live in a strange world where not to be ‘fine’ every single second of the day is somehow a sign of weakness – but we all get down sometimes and we all need help, and it does get better.”

Way Back is playing at The Pleasance from 7 – 11 May, and at The Hobgoblin, Brighton Fringe from 13 May. For more information and tickets, visit The Pleasance website and the Brighton Fringe website.

Laura Peatman

Laura is an English graduate, tea drinker and theatre blogger. She currently works as the press officer for RADA, as well as reviewing and sub-editing for A Younger Theatre and running her own blog.