Emotion and Death Writing in Theatre

It seems to me that if I am to write or respond to anything that the theatre world has to offer me, it has to come through the conditions of my being. It feels impossible to see the world through rose-tinted glasses when the reality is quite different. Right now, as I sit with the sun warming the back of my neck, with children and families playing around the park, I am full of grief.

The loss of a family member is always challenging. This is only the third time I’ve experienced it, the last two happening within a few weeks of each other when I was too young to fully comprehend what death could and does mean. Between then and now I’ve lived a happy family life, watching those around me go through twisting emotions as death knocks coldly at their doors. Nothing really prepares you for it, and it strikes often when you least expect it. At least (as if I need some consoling from this) this family member had been ill for some time; the outcome, whilst still a shock, was comforting too.

So this is why I feel I can’t write or respond to theatre, or for that matter anything, without first addressing where my emotions are firmly rooted. I am an emotional wreck. Death has robbed me of coherent argument for or against critical reflection. I am powerless to its firm grip as it pulls me ever deeper but whilst this happens, like any writer, I feel compelled to write.

When I wrote a response to seeing Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer I expressed my concern over seeing the dreaded fate of dementia setting into my mother. This was perhaps my greatest fear from the piece, that the character of Flora was one day going to be her. This breaks my heart to even think of it, and even more so when I apply the idea that not only do you lose the lucidly of mind, but you begin a constant waiting game with death itself. Just, waiting. What kind of life is that? Theatre had in this instance drawn out the fears that I possess in my personal life.

Upon seeing Hannah Nicklin’s Conversation with my Father, at Sampled Festival in Cambridge on the Sunday morning, I was caught off guard with how Nicklin’s simplistic narrative tugged at my emotions. It wasn’t that it was intentional, Nicklin herself commented afterwards that she found the audiences reaction a surprise, and the content too, of protest and father/daughter communication, doesn’t appear to be an immediate tear jerker. Yet there I was, Sunday morning, fighting back the emotions. I guess in some ways, stories have the ability to unlock the emotions that we keep locked up inside us. I couldn’t relate to Nickin’s story, but I clearly found something in it, intentional or not. I was freed by the emotion that helped me understand a level of the performance itself. Thinking about it now, I’m annoyed I didn’t get to see Ira Brand’s work in progress which clearly had a few people snuffling in their tissues.

Perhaps what I need to see in the next week is Antigone at the National Theatre. A touch of Greek Theatre to win over my emotions. Isn’t that what it was for, after all? Catharsis doing its thing. That’s what I need. I need to see my emotions in those upon the stage, I need to see how the death of a loved one (Antigone’s brother in this case) can lead me to mourn the loss of my own loved one. I can cry with Antigone as she pleads with Creon to give her brother an honourable burial. I can feel the emotion that I feel displayed with such intensity before me that I will be overcome, with little self control. By the end, I will be exhausted but at least all that is contained within me will have burst forth.

As someone who writes about theatre, who reviews theatre, I am always alarmed by how much of how I currently feel, of my own desires and wants within that given moment, can influence my judgement. What I need right now is to mourn, and if I was to see a happy-go-lucky production I would perhaps be a bitter man, sitting hunched over and mumbling how ‘pathetic’ it all feels. Clearly I would be in no right frame of mind to be ‘on duty’. What would happen though if I did review Antigone at the National Theatre? The perfect cathartic production, would it win over my emotions and have me praising its bravery?

I have written before about the need to take time off from seeing theatre, in order to be fresh and appreciate the joy of when the lights dim and the work appears before you. Too often we forget that it is not always the production itself that will have us disgruntled but the experience of attending the theatre at large. We’ve all had rude front of house staff, or journeys that have left us running through the doors of the theatre late, and we all deal with family deaths. So the question raised is perhaps what to do about the emotion that ebbs away underneath every word? Let it influence me, or try to suppress what boils up inside?

I’m already aware that I am a sucker when it comes to a production that attempts to evoke feelings in its audience through manipulation. I’m thinking here of shows that use piano music, coupled with poetic storytelling of heartbreak and torment, to unleash emotion upon the audience. It’s common among practitioners, overused at times, but still effective. A recent example perhaps being Frantic Assembly’s Love Song. I have to guard myself against this, and see the device for what it is, but oh how it is easy to sink into those emotions and be led by them. Here the response is to be objective in the moment, to continually assess and to be the outside eye. Of course it is allowed to be sucked into the moment, to revel in a sense of catharsis as long as you’re aware of this. I’m thinking of the recent reaction to Three Kingdoms and how this could, as has already been suggested, be down to us young people not seeing this sort of work before, we are, quite naturally, caught in the moment and wish to proclaim it as such. For us, the moment takes us and we go with it.

The truth is, we can never truly get away from our emotions when watching, responding to or engaging with theatre and art. It is often this sense of understanding emotionally that can help us to truly engage with the arts. Just like sport can ignite a crowd into a frenzy, so can the collected audience be underwritten with emotion towards a subject of theatre or art. The task at hand is to constantly be objective and to unleash our emotions when is appropriate.

So I’m cancelling my plans this week, and I’m preparing to let my emotions take over for a while. I’ll cry, I’ll attend a funeral and I’ll return with a new sense of understanding towards the cycle of life and theatre that portrays death. What hurts me today is only going to make me a stronger person tomorrow. At least, this is the theory.

Rest in peace. Margaret Orr.

Image by Casey David.