Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Theatre review: The Art of Dying

Last year the Royal Court ran a season curated by a number of its playwrights, whose programming included pieces written specially for it, and read by the writers themselves. Of those, Nick Payne's The Art of Dying was singled out as deserving a wider audience, and returns for a couple of weeks' run this year. Rather than find an actor to perform it Payne returns to deliver it himself, from memory this time, with Michael Longhurst directing. And it's a (sometimes uncomfortably) appropriate piece to have the writer himself deliver, as it deals with three deaths, one of which is that of Payne's own father, the main inspiration for this monologue as well as one of the underlying themes of Constellations. Punctuated by beeps from a life support machine, these recollections are interspersed with another true story, that of Richard P Feynman, an American physicist who worked with Oppenheimer. On discovering his fiancée was terminally ill Feynman quickly married her so she'd die his wife; we also find out how he was faring a couple of years after her death.

It would be interesting, and no doubt moving in a different way, to see a trained actor perform The Art of Dying, but having Payne himself do it brings advantages of its own. Though not polished, he's affable in a slightly awkward way, and the fact that he's obviously not a professional is a constant reminder that part of this story really is his own personal experience that he's sharing.


Oliver Townsend's simple design features a long shelf of medicines lined up behind Payne, something that will turn out to have a very specific relevance to the way his father's death plays out. The playwright has previously demonstrated his interest in science and scientists, so Feynman's story, although not as close to him as his own, receives equally sensitive and moving treatment. The two true stories are bookended with that of a terminally ill woman who went to the Dignitas clinic, and if there's an overall point being made it's that - if not necessarily in the form of assisted suicide - if there's an "art" to dying it's in putting as much control as possible into the dying person's hands. A number of people in hospital in the story have information kept from them "for their own good," an idea I've always felt uncomfortable about myself. But if there is a moral to the story it's a gentle one, Payne presenting essentially a very touching and intimate memoir.

The Art of Dying by Nick Payne is booking until the 12th of July at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs (returns only.)

Running time: 50 minutes straight through.

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