There is something quite fascinating about death (once it’s not happening to us, of course). It comes to us all (as the saying goes), it is the “one and only certainty in life,” as Amy de Bhrún reminds us, and we never really know when it will happen, what it will feel like, and what, if anything, happens afterwards. De Bhrún chooses to explore three different death scenarios through three different characters in her latest one woman show: Hannah, who knows her impending death is near; Marie, who chooses to die by euthanasia; and Joanie, who decides to end her life by suicide.
Yes, this is a play about death, and from the outset, it looks like a pretty morbid serving for a lunchtime visit to a black box theatre on an exceptionally sunny afternoon. The poster bares half of de Bhrún’s face in carcass-like physiognomic form from behind a tress of her blonde hair. One greyish eye seems to lock your gaze and what remains of the other seemed to pull mine further and further into the centre of its blackened hollow.
The stage is minimally dressed with three pairs of shoes laid out on the floor, and a collection of others hung from their laces along a string near the back wall. The bare-footed de Bhrún steps gingerly into a pair of red velvet shoes and we meet the first of her loveable characters: Hannah, who hasn’t yet turned thirty, is from West Cork and has cancer. She tells us with her lilting accent and wide-eyed expressions about her ultra religious parents, Frank and Sally (aka ‘Jesus and Mary’), about their “immaculate deception”, how she lives moment-to-moment, and about how dying doesn’t make you brave, only human. She stares each of us square in the eye with the same sense of permanency that emanates from the play’s poster and tells us she is staring death in the face. If this is how, it seems that ‘Catalina’ (the personification of her cancer) ought to watch her back. Hannah is strong, hilarious and painfully honest, and when the shoes come off, I find myself hoping she returns.
When de Bhrún steps into a second pair of laced up black shoes we meet Marie, a soft-spoken young woman who feels that the kind of love she has for her friend Maire means she doesn’t quite fit in. “I ran knowing that was my way into the world,” she tells us. She talks about the letters she wrote and the letters she received and the longing for love and for Maire, her best friend since childhood. It is here that de Bhrún begins to demonstrate her talent for clean character metamorphosis. We see this in her brilliantly neat transformations, not only from Hannah to Marie, but from Marie to Marie as a child. She embodies the innocence, eagerness and forthrightness of a little girl with fascinating effortlessness. When Marie starts forgetting her words, and then how to use her computer at work, she discovers she has Alzheimer’s. “Words were my life,” she tells us, and talks of wanting to die with Dignitas, an assisted dying organisation in Switzerland, with Maire by her side, before parting with her shoes.
In loosely-laced black ankle boots is Joanie, the third and (for me) the most endearing character of the three. Joanie is a Springsteen-obsessed inner-city Dublin school-girl nicknamed “he-she” who raps and writes lyrics in her room to ease the pain of her suffering at the hands of the “haters” at school. It seems de Bhrún is at her best here as Joanie, “droppin some beats ta forgeh da world,” and morphing seamlessly into her talent show rival ‘Shaza’, that stuck-up self-obsessed girl who everybody (except Joanie) seems to want to befriend. In the end, it all proves too much for Joanie, who sees herself, just like Shaza does, as some kind of disgusting “mutant freak” because she was born the wrong gender.
De Bhrún’s vibrancy and attention to detail on stage allows for the total and complete transportation of the audience from one location to the next within each of her three character scenes. This is achieved best of all in Joanie’s later scenes where we are taken from her Springsteen-adorned bedroom, to the bustle of her classroom, to the soul-destroying stage of a TV talent show and back again with powerful adroitness by de Bhrún.
The structure of the play is straightforward and effective. Her characters return and disappear and return again before us on stage as de Bhrún steps in and out of the three pairs of shoes, until they are gone from us completely, their departure marked poignantly by each pair of shoes being hung with the rest along the string at the back of the stage. Each change from one character vignette to the other is punctuated by a recorded voice narrating lyrical and repetitive passages such as “wanting wanting yearning learning; the more I learn, the more I grow”, a feature that seems superfluous to a sufficiently expressive play.
De Bhrún’s writing is wonderfully simple, honest and succinct, allowing her to immerse herself fully in the colourful nuances of each of her characters. The sensitivity and humour with which everything is handled revokes any sense of overriding morbidity in this hour-long piece. Helena Browne’s direction is tight and truly altruistic in her intentions to convey clear meaning: life is fragile and short. Savour it while you have it.