Death has always been a direful subject, and the journey of somebody who faces losing a loved one is, sadly, an oft-heard tale. Yet as depressingly recurrent as death and dying is, director James Long and lighting designer Itai Erdal breathe life into the ominous subject. The disparate worlds of documentary film and theatre are seamlessly blended to tell the story of the final months of Edral’s mother’s life in The Chop theatre company’s poignant new production.
In September 2000, aspiring documentarian Erdal received a phone call telling him that his mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer and only had nine months to live. He quickly made his way back to Israel at the news, so that the little time she had they could spend together. What we see is the result of those last few months. A mellifluous Erdal narrates as hours of footage and hundreds of pictures all edited into a touching 70-minute piece flutter on the screen behind him; they document Erdal’s mother as she succumbs to the disease, and chronicles her and her family’s thoughts and feelings at the ineluctable demise facing them.
How to Disappear Completely is fascinatingly constructed, often throwing the audience into emotional turbulence. One minute your head is dolefully bowed at grainy footage of a cancer-stricken, bed-ridden mother, only for it to be thrown back in laughter a second later as the curtains are pulled and Erdal begins giving a surprisingly evocative account of being molested by a sea cow. Indeed, this format is consistent throughout, whether it’s a giant projection of the mother getting her head shaved or Erdal chatting about pill-popping in an underground club and dancing like a maniac. The tendency of the story to switch from the camera footage, the tragic inducement of the performance, to Erdal’s recounts of his seemingly random yet hilarious youthful shenanigans offers emotional respite from the darker aspects of the piece. The almost stream-of-consciousness composition aids the very real feel that the show maintains so well throughout.
Erdal himself is nothing short of a wonderful narrator. From the outset he clearly states that he is no actor, but that does not stop him from carrying the confidence, personality and adroitness of one. He is a marvellous story-teller, his amiable personality making him seem more like a close friend bearing his soul on a very personal story, rather than a stranger that the audience has paid to see. He is a man with whom one is utterly engaged. Erdal is great at giving off that ‘mate’ vibe, creating a homely feel that allows us to be an extra family member, experiencing what he experienced. Any mistakes made on stage such as wrong lighting cues or a broken curtain only help to add to that air of real authenticity. Erdal plunges the viewer into the depths of the most abject experiences of his life with complete confidence and equanimity. Throughout he translates the heartbreaking and intimate footage going on behind him buoyantly. Even if strong emotions are being clearly presented on the screen – such as an irritable sister annoyed by her brother’s incessant questioning, or a mother organising her own suicide to escape the disease inside of her – Erdal maintains a thoughtful tone of optimistic wistfulness throughout, making every word that leaves his lips softly profound.
The glowing lighting designer also makes use of his meticulous knowledge of his craft, shining light upon an aspect of theatre that is, at times, often cast in shadows. Indeed, in this performance the minimalist staging allows the lighting to take centre stage at times, with Erdal breaking up the story throughout with ardent descriptions of which particular filter and lamp he will use to convey certain moods and characteristics – and then going on to do so. It is clear through his fastidious tone how much love the man has for his occupation. The endearing meta-narration allows the viewer to enter that little bit further into Erdal’s life, along with learning just how to make a person on stage look sad or powerful, or to bring out the lines on their face.
This is a very real and thoroughly thought-provoking show. The Chop theatre company’s nuanced new piece doesn’t just tell the story of a dying mother, but instead speaks universally. Authentic, engaging and straight from the soul, Erdal’s striking tale is a perfect blend of documentary and theatre where the viewer is not merely a voyeur.
Here’s to hoping that this production won’t be disappearing any time soon.
How To Disappear Completely played at JW3 on 18 May. For more information, see the JW3 website.