My last week has coincided with the opening of two shows about death and though I would never presume to compare the conclusion of my time on this blog with such a huge subject, in that they are both endings it seems oddly fitting to mention them in a theatrical context here.
Writing endings is always difficult because they incorporate a Catch-22. On the one hand we want the satisfaction of conclusions, whereas on the other clean cut answers feel forced. Most artists will admit they find this part the hardest to get right and yet, especially in theatre, they are the most important part.
In an ephemeral art form, where audiences are unlikely to revisit the experience again, endings define lasting opinions. As playwright Lauren Gunderson poignantly puts it: “The ending is more than the last thing that we see before the curtain falls. It's the final meaning, the consummation, the last held breath before the unscripted world courses back in.”
No pressure then. Perhaps to avoid this stress some artists have even provided more than one finale. In Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th the audience decide whether the protagonist is ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ with each verdict concluding differently. In Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist two opposite endings are performed one after the other in an attempt (according to the anarchist) to keep everyone appeased. After all, life doesn’t involve definitive endings so why should theatre?
Of course this isn’t strictly true - death is the ‘final frontier’. But even this ultimate goodbye can prove tricky for theatre makers. We all know the cliché of a hammy on-stage death, but recently I was reminded of the dangers of sentimentalising the topic of death itself; a problem that in this instance is particularly tied into our need for narratives with clean cut endings.
A Life, currently running at The Finborough, tells the story of an old man with six months to live who is trying to settle his emotional accounts. Hugh Leonard’s play explores what is important to us as we reach the end. But Leonard’s - and our - need to have everything tied up neatly turns a realistically ambiguous play into an overly simplistic one. In reality only the lucky go to their graves with all their accounts settled.
Death also forms the basis of HalfCut’s Shelf Life, opening next week at Marylebone Gardens. Their angle is firmly on the ‘meaninglessness of life’ which seems contrary to any definition of sentimentality. Even so, the idea of having an avatar (I believe this will be a balloon) that becomes you, only to grow with you and then ‘deflate together’ does inherently hold a sense of wistfulness in it. It will be interesting to see how this company handle this romanticism.
And though I won’t be here to give you my view on it - and on a myriad of other things not directly shone on by the bright lights of the West End - somebody else smashing will. Not an end then, but a beginning - and oh dear, what’s more sentimental than that?