Death becomes them: Fringe shows tackling mortality

This article is from 2015

Fringe shows about death

'It’s such a shame that somebody dies and they cease to be spoken about' – Jack Rooke, Good Grief

Can you come to terms with the loss of a loved one by immersing yourself into all the death and destruction covered in Fringe shows? Eight months after losing her Dad, Kirstyn Smith is up for finding out

No clichés. That’s the difficulty in talking about death. Platitudes suit the giver rather than the receiver: what use does ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ do when your world has done that monumental axis shift? That’s not to say we shouldn’t use well-meaning expressions of love, lord knows I do, but in my experience, letting me crack horrific, uncalled-for jokes will sort me out far better than offering me a pat on the back.

I’ve gone down a number of routes to try to come to terms with losing my Dad, from the whole ‘writing through the pain’ thing, to thinking about counselling, then ignoring it until it seems unnecessary. My job at The List means August offers enough chances to get out the comfort zone, and there are more than enough people offering their views on death in ways, they promise, that are unpatronising and real. I spoke to a lot of them to find out whether what they have to offer could help someone like me.

Dicing with Dr Death has courted a considerable amount of controversy, due to its uncompromising exploration of euthanasia. Dr Philip Nitschke allows a member of the audience each night to use his (non-lethal, obviously) Destiny euthanasia machine to experience what it feels like in the moments before choosing to end your own life. He knows what he’s talking about, having performed four legal deaths in his native Australia before the legal euthanasia law was overturned.

‘Going to a person's place, knowing that when you leave in an hour or so, they'd be dead is hard. You can't but feel like an executioner. The machine made it easier for me. It allowed those that loved the person dying to be closest, to hold them as they died.’

I’ve watched a loved one die – it’s neither pretty nor pleasant, but it is, in the weirdest of ways, comforting, so I can see where Nitschke is coming from when he continues, ‘As I watched from across the room, the strongest feeling was relief that they had achieved an end to their suffering.’

A lot of people are terribly, teeth-shatteringly angry about Nitschke. ‘I get regular attacks in the media (and sometimes in the way of protestors) at public meetings, at workshops etc. Those complaining are invariably people with fundamentalist beliefs who oppose anyone having the right to end their lives,’ he says. ‘They claim that I "assist suicide", which is a crime, and that the police should act. It was complaints from such groups that had the Met police carry out a cautioned interview when I arrived in the UK to see whether there may be a breach of the law with the Dicing with Dr Death show. The same complaints have now been made to the Scottish police.’

Dr Death’s show is bound to open up some dicey conversations, too long to get into here, about the right to die. Assisted suicide is a unique situation – how about those for whom that bastard Death just moseyed on up and did his worst?

No clichés, I said at the beginning. 'Like breath on a mirror' is perilously close to that, but Hari Sriskantha takes the phrase and finds something practical in it.

‘Death is a useful thing to think about. It’s like Steve Jobs once said: “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.” Such as buying loads of iPhones, am I right!?’

Ignore facetiousness, ignore any opinions you might have about Steve Jobs. It’s not as though Sriskantha (or Jobs) is onto anything particularly mind-blowing here; in fact, the whole notion is close to the YOLO mentality. I wouldn’t be cool with myself if all fear of embarrassment and failure fell away, since I depend on them to stop me from going truly mental. What Sriskantha brings up is the opposite point of view: ‘It’s easy to forget that my life is finite, which is why I end up wasting so many hours on stupid things (mostly flicking through my iPhone). When I think about death, I still waste those hours — but at least I remember to feel bad about it.’

Mixed messages, man. On the spectrum of time-wasting/useful pursuits, where does all this comedy and theatre fall? Come on, Sriskantha, help me out here. ‘Taking something that seems big and powerful and daunting and then laughing at it repeatedly to make it seem less so.’ (Cheers, mate). ‘It also helps that comedy is a great tool for communicating ideas.’ He quotes both last year’s Sara Pascoe vs History and Netflix original series Bojack Horseman as two of his favourite examples of comedy that also tackle sensitive but important issues: in Pascoe's case, feminism and misogyny, while Bojack deals in despair, sadness and regret.

‘Comedy’s all about building and releasing tension,’ says John-Luke Roberts, whose show Stdad-Up is a ‘dead dad show’ with a difference. He’s got the craft behind dark humour down. Roberts calls death 'a brilliant thing to build the tension with, and the whole show is about finding the places to make the audiences uncomfortable, to put them at their ease, to find those moments to release that tension in laughter. The information that I’m giving out about my dad in the show does that – the audience can be with me in what I’m doing and then against me and then I can win them back again.’

I get it, and it’s something that everyone I talk to agrees on. See something funny. Laugh. Forget about soul-destroying situation. Remember. Repeat. You can’t talk about death without cliché and finding humour in death isn’t a new concept. So what now? Is it all a bit New Age-y to think that people who’ve experienced bereavement can get some kind of emotional reassurance through performance?

‘A lot of people go through grief feel incredibly alone and they’re not,’ says Jack Rooke. ‘There’s a lot of people who’ve been affected by it who don’t talk about it because we see it as an awkward, difficult subject to broach. I’m not saying that we should all live our lives by grief and death, but I think we should celebrate grief and the people we’ve lost a lot more. It’s such a shame that somebody dies and they cease to be spoken about.'

Rooke is doing good work. After losing his father suddenly at the age of 15, he became aware of the lack of support networks for both the young and the elderly – his show Good Grief includes an interview with his 80 year old Nan – and he is eager to highlight more distressing cuts in an already shaky support system.

‘From next year the Conservative government wants to cut the Widowed Parent’s Allowance so that bereaved families can only receive the payment for up to one year, and this will terminate on the one-year anniversary of the partner’s death, which is, to me, insensitive and ridiculous.’

He’s not wrong. All the sources (and all this real life experience) say it takes the best part of a year to come to grips with the death of a close family member. That one-year anniversary is a horrifying prospect as it is – to be cut off from support on a difficult enough day seems ludicrous.

‘It puts a 12-month time limit for surviving parents to get their shit together. Even though I’ve spoken about this so much, I still get really riled up by it. I haven’t desensitised myself to the fact that I’m still really pissed off.’

Despite this, Rooke isn’t all pitchforks-at-the-ready in his show. ‘Laughing and crying are so intrinsically linked and what I’ve found with the show is there are times in the audience where people are having their own silent, secret mega-cry and at the exact same time some people are laughing their head off.’

I went to see Good Grief on 16 Aug, and it’s a good thing Rooke hands out biscuits and cake so you’ve got something to stuff in your mouth to stifle the sobbing. It’s a kind-hearted show covering all bases: there are the jokes, there’s the confrontation of how awkward the whole situation is, and there is the real feeling that there should be more of a governmentally-controlled support system to help people of all ages who are dealing with grief. His description of the A&E experience (endless corridors, endless waiting, endless antibacterial gel) struck home hard, as did the ‘get out of jail free’ period and his description of how, after a loved one goes, time stands utterly still. If I’m getting something from this, other people are bound to as well.

Afterwards, conversation ignites. There is so much to discuss, and this, after everything, is the point. Rather than offering up an absolute solution – nobody wants to be the one saying ‘I can help you feel better’ –- all a performer wants is to put across their own perspective and hope someone out there connects. All a viewer wants is to be the one who connects. Rooke sums it up more succinctly than I ever could:

‘I always think that the best artists or performers that I see make work about something that, when they’ve started, they haven’t known what the answer was at the end. The general conclusion of the show is that there are no real answers to grief.’

Jack Rooke: Good Grief

  • 3 stars

Jack Rooke, armed with a coffin full of sympathy snacks and some video input from his beloved Nan, hashes out the awkwardness of discussing death, using his wit and humour to address an often-difficult subject.

Dicing With Dr Death

Dr Philip Nitschke There have only ever been nine Dr Deaths, but with most of his namesakes dead, and the Russian serving 12 life sentences in Siberia, Australia’s own euthanasia doctor Philip Nitschke is now master of ceremonies, teaching the funny side of the right to die debate. From his involvement in the deaths of…

Hari Sriskantha: Like Breath on a Mirror

So Comedy by arrangement with Troika / Free Festival Now he’s 27, Hari’s thinking a lot about death. This is a show about immortality from 2014’s BBC Radio New Comedy Award finalist and 2012’s Chortle Student Comedy Award finalist. ‘Bloody good’ (Skinny). Age category: 16+

John-Luke Roberts: Stdad-Up

  • 3 stars

John-Luke Roberts / PBH's Free Fringe An idiotic comedy show about having and then not having a father, and how stupid you need to make yourself look to get away with speaking ill of the dead. A brand new, incredibly silly show from the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society co-host and Radio 4 News Quiz writer, who's…