Written by award-winning South Australian playwright, Sean Riley and directed by Urban Myth Theatre of Youth’s artistic director Glenn Hayden, this collaborative production between Urban Myth and aged care services provider ECH seeks to explore themes of memory loss and love through the real-life stories of local clients, families and carers.
There is always a risk that creative works based on “true stories” (whether film, literature or theatre) will lean too heavily on that truth-factor to make an impact, while the subtlety and richness of their craft takes a back seat. Thankfully that is not the case here. Despite being funded by the Commonwealth Dementia Community Grants program and having as one of its aims “to raise awareness of dementia and memory loss amongst the community,” Also a Mirror manages to give us a tremendously poetic and universal take on the issues it deals with.
On entering the Goodwood Institute Theatre, one is struck by its unassuming grandeur. Not unlike the lives this play seeks to explore, it is a rich and beautiful old building that is, in some ways, unremarkable and unimposing, but which carries with it such a deep sense of history and presence that you cannot help but feel its effect. The set is beautifully atmospheric, with minimal, plain furniture and other props used to depict the various scenes through which characters move, from their young, past lives to the current-day care facility in which they live. At various points, images are projected onto curtains layered across the stage, transforming the whole scene into a representation of confused, often frightening inner worlds, where ticking clocks and dripping taps are constant reminders of time slipping away. Also highly effective is the use of extra cast members who run on stage at such moments, forming something like a ‘chorus of forgetfulness’ as representations of a character’s tangled thoughts, feelings and memories.
There are some few weaker moments, all of them stemming from that old tension between message and story, between raising awareness and m making art. Occasional lines dealing explicitly with the effects of dementia come across as clichéd, such as the explanation that a mother gives her sons about why their grandmother no longer behaves normally. “That’s not your grandma any more,” she tells them. “It’s someone who’s been invaded by a disease.” The other flaw, I felt, was the final summation delivered by the nurse or carer who knows each of the various characters in their current lives. In this monologue, she talks about the highs and lows, the tragedies and joy of these older people she knows and cares for, ending with the conclusion that “we shouldn’t discard [these people], we should cherish them.” The problem is that all of these emotional ins and outs, the nuances of human experience when dealing with something as fundamental as the loss of memory and especially (we hope) the idea that we should not simply “discard” members of our community, have already been demonstrated to us quite effectively and beautifully in the play itself. This final summation thus comes across as a little too ‘on message’ and unnecessary.
But these were only two minor flaws in an otherwise superb piece of theatre. The performances were uniformly powerful and brilliant, especially considering the skill with which Urban Myth’s young performers were able to portray characters of various ages and in various states of awareness. (With Poppy Mee deserving a particular mention for her brilliant portrayal of the long suffering but loving German wife). In everything from set and costume design, lighting, sound and choreography of elements like the ‘chorus’ manifestations of internal confusion, the production was professional and engaging. It manages to create a poetic environment through which the issues it seeks to explore become more than just another target of ‘community awareness’ and instead give us a universal and emotionally resonant picture of what it means to be young, old, to remember and to forget. In short, to be human.