Tis Unmanly Grief takes its title from a scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Claudius rebukes the titular character for mourning the death of his father. Claudius essentially says “get over it, act like a man and be happy your father is in heaven now”. Both the title and the context of the title lead the audience to expect, in Tis Unmanly Grief, a dissection of male grief in a society that arguably forces men to affect an aura of hyper-masculinity and supress their emotions. But what we get is quite different: a portrait of one man’s extreme grieving and descent in to mental illness which seems only tangentially linked to the play’s title.
Tis Unmanly Grief tells the story of Tom (Damien Hasson) whose father has recently passed away. To deal with his grief Tom decides to dig up his dad’s decomposing corpse and install it in his house. His supportive but mortified girlfriend Katie (Natasha Pring) agrees to this in part because she believes it will pass and also because she is dealing with the revelation that she is pregnant. Throughout the play we are exposed to a number of Tom’s friends played by Aaron Anthony who side-eye the decomposing body in the corner, but look at Tom sympathetically encouraging him to “hang on” whilst his grief spirals further and further out of control.
Hasson gives a compelling performance as Tom who nonchalantly plays football and eats Coco Pops with his father’s corpse, dipping between being conscious and unconscious of people’s concerned looks, as well as of the particularity of his new tenant. It’s an interesting performance as Hasson is able to organically convey to the audience where reality begins and ends for Tom. Pring’s Katie compellingly skirts the line between patience and unyielding optimism that this is a phase that will pass, and deep concern. The couple’s apartment is also an interesting innovation, with Tom’s corpse of a father taking the palatable shape of a large doodle.
However, the suspension of disbelief that Tis Unmanly Grief requires is not quite totally achieved due to a disconnect between Tom’s actions and the reactions to them by his family and friends. This ironically is enhanced by the excellent sound design which ensures that the audience is constantly aware of buzzing flies emanating from the rotting corpse making the entire experience more sensory and the body more real. The audience never quite gets to the bottom of why no-one is fully willing to address the corpse in the room, and the notion that the characters are just giving him space does not totally work.
Relevant context is also missing from the play’s story which would mitigate this disconnect, such as information about the nature of Tom’s relationship with his father, or who Tom was before he became consumed with grief. These omissions make it difficult to distil exactly what the play is trying to say. Do Tom’s loved ones enable his behaviour because grief and mental illness are so difficult to confront? Or is the play more about his experience of grief as a man the expression of which has been stifled leading to this outcome? There are a lot of unanswered questions.
Tis Unmanly Grief is an interesting portrayal of one man’s grieving process and study of our interactions with grief as a whole. But its promise of unpacking the notion of “unmanly grief” is never truly fulfilled.
Tis Unmanly Grief is playing Theatre N16 until 16th December. For more information and tickets, see www.theatren16.co.uk/unmanlygrief.