Memory plays and mind games. 10 August 2016 Memorable plays about memory loss

I’ve been up until 4am most nights for the past week, I’ve been dressing mainly in black, and now shops won’t accept my money.  That doesn’t mean I’m a hardened criminal robbing banks or printing counterfeit banknotes all night, but rather that I’ve just got back from the Edinburgh Fringe.

There The Corner Shop Events has been presenting Be Prepared, a brilliant, bittersweet new play written and performed by Ian Bonar, and drawn from some of his own family history.  When audience members have been praising the show on social media, I’ve found myself responding with things like ‘Thanks, hope the show stays with you!’ because ‘glad you enjoyed it’ seems too light and throwaway for a play that is, fundamentally, quite dark.  But then, ‘hope it stays with you’ is a pretty strange thing to say in itself, given that one of the play’s main themes is memory loss.

It’s a theme that seems to have been more popular than ever in British theatre recently.  Of course, so much storytelling hinges on the unreliable narrator and the fallibility of memory that it is difficult to escape entirely in any narrative medium.  Yet, over the past couple of years, when the memory of the First World War has dominated so much of the cultural scene, the theatre industry in particular has proved fruitful ground for examining memory loss.

After runs at Theatre Royal Bath and the Tricycle, 2015 saw Florian Zeller’s The Father transfer to the West End, where it returned in February for a second glorious outing, and in April Kenneth Cranham – arguably the least starry contender for the award – won an Olivier for his leading role as a man suffering from Alzheimer’s.  I didn’t see the production, for no reason other than that when tickets went on sale I had recently seen the film Still Alice and found it so trite that I couldn’t quite bear any further discourse on the subject of dementia.  I have now read The Father in Christopher Hampton’s translation.  It is superb.

Meanwhile Plaques and Tangles, Nicola Wilson’s tale of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s, premiered across town at the Royal Court.  More recently, National Theatre Wales presented Before I Leave, Patrick Jones’s play about dementia choirs with new music by the Manic Street Preachers, and Zoë Wanamaker and Barbara Flynn starred in Elegy by Nick Payne, the man who has made neuro-theatre into a subgenre all of its own. Wanamaker played a character whose only way of being cured of a degenerative neurological condition was to have a part of her brain removed, taking with it all memory of the preceding twenty years, including her marriage to Flynn’s heartbroken Lorna.

Many of these productions play with form, structured as they are in a non-linear way that suggests internal turmoil and confusion, or even regression.  Not always, but often, their sets offer a contrasting clarity: clinical and inscrutably futuristic, like diagrams in 3D. (I hadn’t noticed the phenomenon of the ‘obligatory brain-like light sculpture’ until Matt Trueman pointed it out, but now I can’t un-see it.)

Be Prepared takes place on a sparse, naturalistic set, but has a complex structure, dropping in and out of different memories and only revealing its secrets gradually.  Ian flits between the story of his character, Tom, who has recently lost his father, and that of Mr Chambers, an old man mistakenly phoning Tom in search of a funeral director.  Mr Chambers is losing his memory and is confused by events in the recent past, yet can describe vividly his youth and his time in Burma during the Second World War.  The echoes between the two men’s stories make it occasionally unclear which is which, and on the page the meaning can be obscure.  It is only in performance, with evocative sound and lights, that the play takes on its full significance.

In many ways, theatre seems the most natural medium for presenting work about memory, precisely because it is so fleeting, precisely because people will remember it in different ways and will never be able to go back to the original for corroboration.  Words on a page enable detective work that almost feels like a form of cheating – you can go back a few pages and remind yourself of what was really said – whereas in a theatre you are forced to keep going at the same pace as the protagonists.  Although, of course, that doesn’t prevent you from going back for a second viewing, or a third.  I’ve seen Be Prepared quite a few times and am not bored yet.

- Jessie Anand


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