It feels like only yesterday that I wrote of “the National Theatre’s triumphant return” with Death of England: Delroy, performed in the wake of the first lockdown – and then swiftly followed by the second the next day. Yet here we are, against all odds, joyfully engrossed in the return of the British theatre industry en masse.
As After Life kicks dramatically into life, much like an interactive experience we are informed of our own passing. Sitting in a place between life and eternity, we are challenged with choosing one memory from our lives that we hold most dear, to be recreated for us to live in forever. Led by unnamed officials, several characters emerge from the audience and we watch as they deal with their choices, their grief, and their humanity, all trying to decide on their final thought.
Written by Jack Thorne, After Life is not immediately the comforting hereafter that we might imagine, instead its anticlimactic viewpoint examines the difference between truth and memory, and what is really important to take with us when we go. Most interesting is the complexity of its characters, not angels but admittedly flawed people, coming to terms with death being a continuation of the difficult choices we must make in life.
In true NT fashion, After Life brings only the highest standards of performance in all aspects. Housed in the National’s state-of-the-art Dorfman theatre, designer Bunny Christie (along with sound by Tom Gibbons and lighting by Neil Austin) makes full use of what the space has to offer. In a colour scheme of grey and navy, the set is that of a minimalistic office, dated with a projector playing VHS, and giving an overall bland and uninspiring tone – quite unlike what many would expect when joining the great beyond. A dramatic wall of filing draws backdrops the stage, representing the case files for each person that is passing through this place. Hidden within these filing draws are design aspects which dazzle in their stunning reveals from start to finish. There is no part of the stage’s thrust format which cannot be reached by the perfect precision of the projection, its crystal clarity transforming the space. The vision of this production is clear and really magnifies the plot of the play, materialising this abstract notion into something concrete that we can truly understand.
Whilst the design avoids any colour, the dazzling performance from this dynamic cast adds a vibrancy to the stage that is rich and complex, leaving us totally invested in each of them. Very much an ensemble piece, the cast is split into the guides – bureaucrats who work in the afterlife, and the guided – those reflecting on their lives as they move through the facility. Each character is painted with an immense emotional depth, subtly unfolding throughout the one act play. Expertly directed by Jeremy Herrin with the deftest hand, the performance of Luke Thallon, June Watson and Kevin McMonagle were notable for their complete presence and conviction.
It’s hard to experience After Life without feeling changed in some way – wrapping one’s head around the finality of death as these truly interest people make the ultimate journey. Especially during the plays climax, it is something that leaves an ache deep inside and makes you realise how precious the little moments are. A heart wrenching production that is essential watching for the soul.
After Life is now playing at the National Theatre until 7 August. For more information and to book tickets, visit The National Theatre’s website.