Drayton Arms Theatre, London
Saturday 28th September, 2019
Frank, touching and slick, Breathless Theatre’s show Good Grief explores how loss manifests itself in ways that are often painful and unexpected. Both speaking and miming verbatim pieces of interview text, the four-part ensemble move between a simply staged living room and audience space to discuss how we can connect through our frequently humorous and moving experiences of death. Though only 45 minutes long, writer, director and actor Tallulah Vaughan has managed to craft a remarkably thorough piece that resonates with an intimate audience.
Good Grief is loosely divided into sections that discuss the physical and psychological effects of loss. So often overlooked, the physical symptoms of grief – nausea, pain, tiredness, loss of appetite, loss of sleep – are discussed at length; it’s joked that we almost need a ‘baby-on-board’ style badge to display our grief so we’re treated with care. Indeed, Victor Mellors fluently portrays a disarmingly upbeat and self-deprecating character who jokes that he is ‘the hulk of crying’, proving that there are many faces of devastation.
Later, the seemingly supernatural effects of lost ones that speak to us in our dreams is explored. Actor Emma Nihill expertly embodies the characterisation of a woman in Dubai who meets her late grandmother in her dreams, who congratulates her on a good grade that she later receives. Similarly, Finnen, Mellors and Nihill movingly portray a late wife giving her husband permission to be happy with his new wife, after which she never appears in his dreams again.
The play being divided up into these sections structures a narrative which could otherwise become lost or repetitive with so much information. Indeed, simple lighting cues inform us that the topic has changed and suitably set a different tone. These sections, however, are slightly hindered by their staging being similar for all: the piece remains fairly static, with the actors often sitting on the sofa throughout their discussions. As a result we occasionally lose the importance of the text as the eye isn’t necessarily drawn. Some movement would have been welcome to more vividly illustrate each section, such as during Finnen, Mellors and Nihill’s dream sequence.
At times like this it can be unclear whether we as an audience are ‘intruding’ upon an intimate moment or are welcome to be involved with it. Indeed, the actors frequently sitting amongst the audience conveys a sense of familiarity and dialogue, as do Vaughan’s fascinating and vulnerable discussions about her construction of Good Grief itself. However, were Breathless Theatre to explore the potential of audience discussion and participation further, the piece could become a more communal and fulfilling exploration of a theme familiar to us all.
The play also exposes the strange institutions and customs that we construct around death, with Mellors recounting the story of a humorous pre-recorded Mass in Spain. Sequences like this expose the centuries-long discomfort many cultures have with something as universal as death: often, Vaughan highlights, we do what we think is ‘right’ – such as hiding the possessions of those we’ve lost to feel better – but, in doing this, we are, as Nihill tells us, ‘burying our treasure.’
Good Grief achieves its aim to open up a discussion about loss in a way that is often poignant and thought-provoking, demonstrating the talent of young company Breathless Theatre. By constructing a well-rounded discussion around such a vulnerable theme, Vaughan successfully manages to ‘make the darkness feel uncomfortable with itself.’
AN INTERVIEW WITH BREATHLESS THEATRE
Hello Breathless Theatre! Who are you, and from where and when did you form as a theatre company?
Hi! We’re an emerging theatre company who focus on telling truthful, human stories with important political or social messages behind them. Promoting female talent is also very important to us and we currently have an all-female production team. We were founded in 2018 when our director, Tallulah finished university and we took our first piece, SPACES, to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Your production, ‘Good Grief’, explores how people of varying backgrounds and ages experience grief. Why is this subject matter important to you, and why do you want to communicate its importance to an audience?
Grief is something that profoundly affects everyone, and yet us Brits are so reticent to talk about it. This piece originated from a need Tallulah felt to talk about grief and to create a shared community space where it could be discussed – and perhaps the burden of grief lifted somewhat. As the writing and rehearsal process continued, it became clear that the ways in which we could discuss grief through the medium of theatre were myriad and yet there were very few spaces that grief could be discussed outside of therapy. The team all have experience of intense grief, and as writers and creators we felt it was extremely important not to focus too heavily on the morbidity that grief brings with it but instead to try and find some hope within the experience. We wanted to communicate the importance of finding hope during difficult times to the audience.
Actors in the play both speak and mime text verbatim from people you interviewed about their experiences of grief. Why did you choose to stage the play in this format, and how did you approach people to be interviewed?
We chose to use verbatim voice clips because it was important to us to convey the universality of grief – that it can happen to anyone, at any age. It takes the audience out of a black-box theatre with five actors and reminds them that what we are telling is truthful. It also helped to create characters that might be hard to portray otherwise – such as the old man played by a 30 year old! In terms of approaching people to interview, we had mixed responses. Some people were very keen to talk and share their experiences and understood why we wanted to create a play about this. Others held back and felt it was too personal to discuss. Interestingly, it was far harder to get men to speak to us than women! Since doing the piece at the Drayton Arms, a few people have approached us with a willingness to be interviewed so we are setting up those at the moment.
Good Grief manages to combine humour with moments of sadness to create a very honest and unflinching piece. How did you collate your interview material to achieve this balance?
Thank you! That was our aim. For us, it was about finding the moments of humour within each interview and never allowing the piece to sink too deep into trauma or misery. So if we had an emotional scene, we would try and follow that with a moment of upbeat narration or a humorous anecdote to give the audience some light relief. During the interviews, we asked everyone if they found humour in grief and nearly everybody agreed that there was and that it is vital to focus on that during the tough times. As Tallulah’s mum always says, if you don’t laugh you’ll cry.
What proved a challenge when developing and staging the play?
The challenge was keeping the play interesting and finding a narrative storyline in what is essentially a theatrical collage. With verbatim, you’re dealing with a lot of spoken recollections and memories and so it can become a very static piece – people just standing on stage and talking to the audience. We had to work quite hard to find ways of presenting those memories visually to create dynamism on stage.
Do you have a particular favourite line or exchange from Good Grief?
A particular favourite would be ‘I don’t know much about grief, I’ve never died!’. The glib humour in that is just wonderful. But also, the idea that ‘grief is something you’re going to live with because that’s what makes you human’. It’s a reminder of how lucky we are to find someone we care about so much that we do grieve for them, and how that is a shared human experience. We’re never alone in our grief.
The nature of verbatim text means that actors have to be line perfect whilst adopting multiple styles of body language. How did you approach this as an ensemble?
The actors spent a lot of time listening to the recordings and speaking along with them in front of a mirror. They also listened to them whenever they could – on the tube, on the way to work etc. For each voice character, we listened to the track repeatedly and created a character out of the voice, thinking about how they would stand, breathe, move. For us, it wasn’t about recreating the characteristics of the people we interviewed but about finding the essence of what they were saying and conveying it physically.
If you’d like your audience to understand or take one thing from Good Grief, what would it be?
It’s okay to grieve. Share it, talk about and it will get better!
What’s next for Breathless Theatre?
We’d love to expand Good Grief into a full-length piece and so we’re hoping to go into R&D for that soon. There may also be another play in the works