The Art of Dying, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London – review

In plays such as Constellations and Incognito, Nick Payne has brilliantly blended individual personal matters with complex and abstruse scientific topics. It should come as little surprise, then, that this brief solo piece (first seen in the Royal Court’s Big Ideas strand last summer and now running for a fortnight in the upstairs studio) alternates Payne’s own testimony with that of the physicist Richard P. Feynman.

The subject is, as the title suggests, dying. And yet it is not. Opening and closing segments deal with a woman’s assisted suicide, but the intertwining main stories are each about the death of a loved one: Feynman’s fiancée, Payne’s father. This is the art of bereavement, not of dying.

Payne concludes by asking explicitly how we might better help the dying to die and quietly condemns the convention of lying to patients about their prospects – “We try to operate within a culture of optimism,” says his father’s consultant absurdly. However, what both he and Feynman (in an account culled from his book What Do You Care What Other People Think?) experience more keenly is the obligation placed upon them to become complicit in the lies. As with so much of our behaviour around death, this is really about those who live on.

This, though, is as convoluted as the content or presentation get. Payne simply sits on a plastic chair stage centre and tells the two, or three, stories episode by episode. Changes between segments are indicated by brief beeps as if from an electrocardiograph machine. He does not act: there is no re-creation of moods, just the basic accounts. This manner and Payne’s unassuming, bespectacled appearance recall the similarly low-key strain of writer/director/performer Chris Goode’s work.

Towards the end of the 45 minutes, Payne recites Feynman’s intimate letter to his now-deceased wife, written as a way of coming to terms with her death. This piece is, I think, fulfilling a similar function for Payne: it is not really part of his theatrical oeuvre, but it is something he had to write, and indeed perform himself rather than entrust to anyone else. It is an act of generosity in some ways, but ultimately we must all deal with such issues for ourselves, first from one side and then the other.

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