‘I need to be in control’.
When all choices have been taken away for living, then the only thing left is taking control of how to die.
This is one of the thematic cores of When The Light Leaves, a play produced by Citizen Theatre, written by Rory Godbold and directed by Jayde Kirchert. It takes a multifaceted look at euthanasia, death, and suicide, topics that we typically don’t want to discuss, but need to. The story focuses on Dan, a 34-year-old man with stage four brain cancer. It follows Dan and his partner Liam, as they navigate the complex process of euthanasia. This play is set before the Voluntary Assisted Dying laws passed in Victoria in 2019, showing the audience why these laws are so valuable to those with one final choice.
When The Light Leaves is inspired by the experience Godbold had as his father was dying from cancer, who took lethal medication to end his suffering. This first-hand experience of such a horrific event makes the dialogue all the more resonant and realized. ‘I want the breath in my body and the light in my eyes to go out at the same time,’ Dan gasps at one point in the play. For those who have never experienced such an unfathomable situation, When The Light Leaves does a damn excellent job at giving a window into it.
What I really thought was intriguing was the use of space and the set by Stu Brown. The stage was minimalist in design,with only a small platform as the main centerpiece. Props such as apples, books, and mugs were suspended in the air, attached to the ceiling with clear strings. A sense of disassociation with Dan’s surrounds is also suggested. The main prop, a caged light swinging, clicking and flickering did a good job of conveying the simple, yet complex metaphor of a life.
For such a small cast, a complex web of emotions is wrought. Dan, played by Tomas Parrish gives an aching, physically charged performance, at times wrenching his body to such intensities that I thought he might break apart. The emotion that radiates from him truly does make you believe he is a man at the end of this life. He and his sister, Kate (Veronica Thomas), have a tension between them due to Kate’s busy lifestyle, but a love shows itself in her wretched monologues that seem to come from deep down inside her body. Their mother has dementia, which teases out and strains the emotional tension between the siblings.
Leigh Scully as Liam, Dan’s lover, adds a touch of humour and light-heartedness, giving the audiences small windows to release the sense of dread creeping up. He also hits the heavy scenes well with a believable emotional range. Adding the presence of a palliative care nurse, Alice (Michelle Robertson) with divided moral duties completes the perfectly small cast. A particular acting choice that should be applauded is at points characters repeat bits of their lines over and over with a visceral jerk of the head, a great use of the body to express the idea of Dan’s memory decaying as the illness moves on. The final scene brings home how the right to choose affects all of the people in the dying person’s life, and can bring a peaceful end instead of a needlessly cruel one.
Flinging oneself into a void over staying in a world, a consciousness – that you know, is terrifying. But for some, that’s the only way to finally exert one’s will into a life that has been stripped of choice. A choice that is of ultimate destruction, yet of ultimate love for someone who is suffering deeply. When The Light Leaves shows the precious importance of the right to die legally, by contrasting today’s legal victories with a time that stripped dignity from those making that last, that most important choice.
When The Light Leaves played from the 29th of January to the 1st of February 2020 at the Gasworks Theatre.