By Katie Kirkpatrick
Art by Leya Jasmin
Staging grief is a delicate balancing act. The difficulty lies in whether making grief a spectacle, with allocated seats, marketing materials, and lighting states, moves it too far from reality and thus dooms it to inauthenticity.
James Fritz’s Lava, first performed in 2018 but recently revived, sets its exploration of grief in the aftermath of a major disaster: an asteroid has hit London, killing thousands. The play opens with a gut-punching declaration: ‘Stage One: Denial / Death toll: 12,002’. Almost before it has begun, the play confronts us with objective, national statistics, paired with the first of the five stages of grief; from the outset, the juxtaposition of the personal and the public, the intimate and the national, could not be clearer. The play is punctuated with five such lines, each combining a stage of grief with a numerical statistic. Inbetween, we follow Vin, a young man who has been mute ever since the asteroid hit; his friend Rach; and Jamie, a ‘London survivor’ staying with Rach’s family.
Tom Ratcliffe’s Wreckage moves in the opposite direction, honing in on an experience of grief which is startlingly personal. Performed at both the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s Turbine Theatre over the last year, it tells the story of mature student Sam as he deals with the sudden death of his partner Noel in a car accident. The play features the curious stage direction ‘set in the grieving mind of Sam’.
At its end, the scope of the play expands to a more public, universal understanding of grief, as we watch the rest of Sam’s life flash before him: onstage projections show birthday candles, marriage, the birth of children, as well as the sickness and death of loved ones. Most of these are generic, forcing audience members to imagine themselves moving through familiar scenes of life.
While Ratcliffe starts from the individual and widens his scope outwards, Fritz constantly keeps national mourning and its personal realities side by side. Lava closes in on itself as we forget the wider context in favour of these individual characters’ lives. This encourages us to question the value we attribute to each kind of grief: other than through statistics, our only awareness of Fritz’s national disaster comes from individual reactions, forcing us to prioritise the personal consequences over facts.
Unlike Ratcliffe’s montage of milestones, Fritz focuses on the unique experience the disaster brings to his protagonists. The movement of both plays stands in perfect contrast to one another. While one production takes a national event and makes it personal, the other takes personal grief and extrapolates it across a lifetime, shifting it to the realm of the universal.
One of the most popular and long-lasting frameworks for exploring grief is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Although since debunked by its own creator, the theory has secured its place in media and popular culture.
The five stages of grief have become a kind of fiction in themselves – a helpful narrative that we lay over the realities of our experiences, almost a societal performance. We use Kübler- Ross' framework to find something universal in our own experiences, finding comfort in the footsteps of others.
For both shows, the passage of time is warped by experiences of grief. Lava’s five stages lend it both a certainty and a feeling of artifice, with each section of the play sectioned off before it’s presented to the audience. The stages of grief are never attributed to one person: each character experiences a different kind of grief. Yet we, the audience, experience it all.
Wreckage deals with grief in a far less straightforward way. We certainly see instances of bargaining and anger, but certainly the stage of guilt is far less clearcut. Ratcliffe plays with chronology throughout the play. After we watch Noel’s fatal accident unfold for the very first time, the stage directions state that ‘We are no longer in time as we know it’. Theatre allows writers to create their own sense of time and enact it in real life, granting them full control over the order of events and how others experience them. It also conveys how life-altering grief can be: for the characters in both shows, time is now defined by a ‘before’, and an ‘after’.
As Nora McInerny says in her TedTalk on grief, ‘you don’t move on from anything, that isn’t the goal, you can’t move on from anything. You can move forward.’ The lack of rules in theatre allow this to be true: there is no need for a simple narrative or narrator or timeframe, but the play must begin and end, and the audience must remain in the experience for as long as the run time says. As is the cliché: ‘the show must go on’. One way or another, everything moves forward. The inevitability of theatre thus makes it suited to stories of grief.
As well as imposing a new sense of time upon an audience, the collective nature of theatrical experience affects the way we engage with a play. Expectations and norms nudge us to respond in the right way – no one wants to be caught laughing at the wrong time.
Here, theatre offers another parallel with experiences of grief. Expectations of public emotion are central to Lava. Buried at the heart of the play is the revelation that Vin’s father did not die in the asteroid disaster, as he has allowed his friends to think, but in fact left him and his mother a week prior.
This discovery initially infuriates his friends, who see him as taking attention away from Jamie, who really did lose family in the disaster. There’s an element of metatheatre: we find out the truth of Vin’s silence at the same time as the other characters, and thus are exposed to responses that mirror our own. Vin’s grief is now
viewed almost as a performance others react to.
Wreckage features a similar revelation. After Noel’s death, Sam discovers that Noel had cheated on him. ‘It’s like my grief isn’t real now,’ Sam says, ‘I don’t know anything anymore’. Suddenly, mourning – the consistent element running through the play – is itself thrown into uncertainty. Returning to that instrumental note that Wreckage is ‘set in the grieving mind of Sam’, his mourning becomes fragile and intangible, and thus so does the very world of the play.
This stage direction throws the play into the first person, meaning everything we are see from here on out comes with a bias, in contrast to Lava’s more conventional narrative. While we see other characters react to Vin and Jamie’s grief, Sam exists in his own world. Because the mere act of staging creates a collective experience, the
personal becomes public by the very nature of the medium. Ratcliffe’s play becomes subjective as audience members form their own opinions on the events depicted – in this way, theatre can never truly occur in the first person. Does this collective dimension of theatre mean that grief on stage can’t be authentic?
In a 2018 essay, the writer Sharon Aronofsky Weltman describes theatricality as ‘indicat[ing] a heightened...awareness of the artifice of performance of any kind’. She goes on to specify that artifice does ‘not mean antirealism: on stage or in fiction, realism involves just as much artifice as theatricality’. Certainly, we are reminded by the presence of the audience that the grief on stage is not real.
In Lava, audience members sit in present-day London, rendering the play’s statistics about the destruction of the city demonstrably fictitious. In Wreckage, Noel’s actor is onstage almost constantly: we cannot forget that he is not in fact dead. But this isn’t to dull any of the emotion of the performances. As Weltman notes, the theatricality of each show is not in opposition to its realism, but rather supports it. In the original script for Lava, director Angharad Jones writes:
This play feels so right for 2018 at a
time when the world often makes little
sense, feels unpredictable and sometimes
terrifying, but where there is also hope,
resolve and a sense that anything is possible.
It’s a sentence that feels almost tragic to read now, five years later, when we know the outcome of all this hope and possibility. When Lava was first performed that year, a disaster of the scale depicted seemed distant, implausible. By the time it returned in 2022, themes of national mourning took on a new meaning.
When Rach says, at the beginning of the play, ‘I refuse to be a part of a world where something that ridiculous can happen’, the line is met with sad smiles and knowing looks. Wreckage’s place as a post-pandemic play ensures an acute awareness of collective grief.
Despite the common theme of mourning and loss, neither play can shake off the influence of world it was written in. And similarly, our individual reactions as an audience are shaped by our own experiences of grief.
The pandemic, with its endless press briefings and weekly claps for carers demonstrated that grief, as seen to the outward world, will always be a performance.
But clearly, this performative aspect makes grief no less real. In spite of its apparent intrinsic inauthenticity, theatre allows us to seek our own authenticity through its subjective nature. We find our own truth presented to us on stage.
KATIE KIRKPATRICK reads French at Teddy Hall. Her favourite country is Genovia.