Review: When the Light Leaves, La Mama Courthouse (VIC)

Arjun Rajkhowa

Rory Godbold’s play illustrates the anguish of waiting to die.
Review: When the Light Leaves, La Mama Courthouse (VIC)

Photo: Stu Brown.

When the Light Leaves is a moving play about terminal illness and euthanasia by a Melbourne-based playwright and production team. This is a work that dives headlong into the complexities of family life around a person who has been given a diagnosis of terminal illness and whose determination to take control of the process of dying generates both great anguish and relief.

Dan (Tomas Parrish) has brain cancer, and experiences a transformative diminution of life and hope. Parrish is an elegant actor, and his interpretation of Dan’s trajectory of illness and decision-making is poignant and persuasive. Liam (Leigh Scully), Dan’s partner, is determined to marry Dan and travel to Italy in their final months together. Liam’s exuberance and warm-heartedness revive Dan’s spirits, and their love for each other alleviates their suffering. Scully’s rendition of the role is authentic and beautiful. The dynamic that Parrish and Scully create helps sustain the optimism that inheres in this play. It becomes apparent, through flashbacks, that they have not known each other for very long, but their willingness to commit to each other has a redemptive quality.

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Dan’s relationship with his sister, Kate (Veronica Thomas), is fraught. Dan appears more supportive of Kate than always-preoccupied Kate is of him, but Kate’s love and concern nevertheless shine through, particularly in her heartfelt monologues. Dan’s gradual decline (‘My body is disintegrating. My mind is fading.’) is reflected well in the changing tenor of his interactions with Liam and Kate.

The conversations between Dan and his nurse, Alice (Michelle Robertson), include profound meditations on preparing for death. Alice’s friendly professionalism belies palpable fears about Dan. She encourages him to reconcile with his terminal suffering and resist the impulse to choose euthanasia. Dan’s resistance, and his obstinate determination to confront the savagery of painful death render her well-intentioned attempts ineffective. Robertson and Parrish enact this tension between the professional solicitude of the healthcare worker and the uncompromising and unrelenting attitude of the patient very well. A crucial storyline that is revealed later in the play helps further illuminate the import of that tension.

The actors convincingly embody the suffering that accompanies terminal illness, authentically conveying the subdued but omnipresent pain that permeates experiences of decay, decrepitude and gradual decline. The grotesque minutiae of the process of waiting for death, such as the material and financial dilemmas that must obtrude into the consciousness of the dying person and their family, are encapsulated perfectly in the script.

The playwright, Rory Godbold, amply demonstrates that he has an intimate understanding of terminal illness and death. His work marks a departure from enigmatic depictions of death, dwelling uninhibitedly and empathetically on both the ordinariness and extraordinariness of those final struggles that precede the ultimate arrival of death. Dan’s summation of the truth of his understanding of terminal illness is both laconic and profound: ‘I want the breath in my body and the light in my eyes to go out at the same time.’

The immersive lighting and sound, and minimalist use of space distinguish this production. While some elements of the play, such as the occasional flashbacks and staccato rewinding of dialogue (representing Dan’s disordered cognition), do at first appear jarring, one can appreciate their value as dramatic devices.

It is apt that a Victorian production has been staged to coincide with the activation of the Victorian voluntary assisted dying (VAD) program. The Victorian VAD law, which comes into effect on 19 June, gives anyone who is in the final stages of a terminal illness (with less than six months to live) the right to seek physician support to end their life. As the Victorian health department explained at a recent training seminar, a significant amount of work has been undertaken to support the implementation of this law, and comprehensive measures have been put in place to ensure that patients do not experience the sort of isolation, helplessness and confusion that this play depicts. What happens in Victoria will offer salutary lessons for the rest of Australia. The experience of witnessing such a dramatisation of terminal illness can be a transformative one, helping humanise policy, legislation and public discourse.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

When the Light Leaves
High Line Theatre in collaboration with Citizen Theatre
by Rory Godbold
Cast: Tomas Parrish, Leigh Scully, Veronica Thomas, Michelle Robertson
Director: Jayde Kirchert
Producer/dramaturg: Stu Brown
12-23 June 2019
La Mama Courthouse, Carlton
Tickets $20-$30

About the author

Arjun Rajkhowa is a Melbourne-based writer and academic.