|Bea is first seen bouncing on her bed. A Madonna song is playing on the stereo as she springs about her bedroom with an adolescent energy. Yet as Mick Gordon’s new play unfolds it becomes clear that this exuberant, excitable young woman is the inner Bea, the real Bea is only occasionally glimpsed lying limp on the bed she never leaves.|
Gordon’s previous On Theatre projects have been collaborative, co-written with people like A C. Grayling (On Religion) or the neuropsychologist Paul Broks (On Emotion). This new play is a solo effort and eschews the ‘On’ moniker, though On Empathy or On Euthanasia would be fitting subtitles.
|Bea is a young woman with a chronic, debilitating condition that has seen her confined to bed for eight years. She’s in need of constant care; someone else has to feed her, to wash her, to dress her. Her mother, a prickly, protective barrister, hires the camp and verbally incontinent Ray as her daughter’s new carer. He’s verbose but sensitive and Bea is able to communicate with him, though how much of what she says to him is actually vocalised is unclear. What is clear is that Bea wants to die; she does not consider her life to be worth living any longer and wants to end it, something she will need help to achieve. She dictates a letter to Ray to this end so that she can better explain her wish to her mother.|
While Bea’s decision to end her life provides the play with its core, the tone of the piece is upbeat and vibrant, almost aggressively so in places. It seems determined not to be a downer, not until it needs to be. And so, for the most part, this is very much a play about life and living; the inner Bea cannot be contained for long and she frequently takes over, laughing and singing and dancing. Alice Woodward's colourful set reflects this. It’s dominated by an oversized bed and a backboard studded with gaudy earrings; it’s a teenage space, punctured by the occasional piece of grey medical kit; in many ways it looks as if a pause button has been pressed, her bedroom still looks like that of a girl, not of the woman she has become. Time in this room has stopped. There’s poignancy in the details: the party dresses unworn (except by Ray) and the furniture unused.
Sometimes the play is thin-skinned, in that its internal workings all too visible – this is particularly true when Ray describes a common test for autism and explains the concept of mind-blindness. A question is clearly posed to the audience: how possible is it for us to understand another person’s pain? At other times the play is less keen to explain itself and there remains a question mark over how Bea and Ray communicate; how many of their interactions are verbal, how many are sensed? How much of what Bea ‘says’ does she actually say? Her mother sometimes appears not to hear her at all, but is this just part of her character, this need not to hear the things that will be too difficult or upsetting? It’s true that as the play progresses Bea’s mother seems better able to hear her.
Often this doesn’t matter and it’s enough that Ray understands her and makes her happy, but it become more pertinent when he administers certain services to the sex-starved Bea. This is presented as a liberating and appealingly anarchic moment (Ray has just completed a most unique reading of A Streetcar Named Desire) but even so there’s a sense of uneasiness about what is actually occurring.
In both tone and content the production is reminiscent of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a play which contrasted a young mentally ill woman’s inner world with her stark, bleak, medicated reality, though in that world the line between the two was a solid one, a brutal cut off, whereas here Bea slips and slides between her two states.
All three performances are strong. Pippa Nixon manages to convey both Bea’s inner vitality and the physical reality of her situation. Al Weaver is hurricane-like as Ray; his comic energy is remarkable, words simply spill from him, a constant flow, which while just as the character is written is in some ways too much – he’s too dominant a force. Paula Wilcox is, by necessity, more understated as Bea’s brittle mother.
Gordon’s previous plays have been in the business of sparking debate, setting up questions and situations that require picking over, and yet here the fundamental question of Bea’s desire to die goes oddly unchallenged. It is presented as necessary and right, which may well be true but the audience is left with little space to decide this for themselves. That said Gordon manages to avoid pressing too many overtly emotional buttons and the play is thought-provoking, genuinely funny and undeniably powerful: life plays the lead here and death is very much a supporting character.
Reviewed for musicOMH