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By Mark Butler

January 27th, 2014

An Evening with Dementia

The performance of Trevor T Smith in his one hour show “An Evening with Dementia” has generated positive reviews over the last three years, including during two sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe where I saw it.

This YouTube clip captures the assured way in which he inhabits an old man who, as he defiantly declares, is not a dementia "sufferer” as he has never suffered anything in his life. For this message about the use of the term dementia sufferer alone he deserves credit. See the performance of the show.

Popularity and framing of dementia

This show is not alone. Dementia as a subject for a one-person theatrical show has grown in popularity over the last few years for fairly obvious reasons – not least the raised profile of dementia itself and the cost of staging.  It might be cynical to suggest that dementia also provides an almost guaranteed audience provided you can generate reviews which reassure the audience that they are going to see a nuanced and humane “performance”.     

Previews and reviews for such pieces are almost inevitably framed in terms of the “heartfelt” and “sensitive” nature of the performance.  They offer a “balance of the serious and the humorous”, with a truth and pathos that “makes us both laugh and cry”.  To fit the one-person mould the play must be able to be described as raising “profound questions” and engaging with issues that “matter more than ever to society” and “which affect us all” but in the end it is “the sheer humanity of the performance which moves us”.

In my time I have seen many clever and engaging performances.  As with Trevor T Smith’s performance looked at objectively they are just performances.  I personally am looking for something more in art, something which is transformative. 

Not really engaging with profound questions

The truth of these one-person performance pieces is they do not really engage with profound questions at all.  They appeal to an almost unavoidable personal reaction to the impact of the disease and the footprint it already has on each of our lives.  It is unlikely that anyone coming to "An Evening of Dementia" is there on the off-chance it might be “about” something else. The piece will be looked at in terms of the “truth” and humanity of the performance.  It will be about the acting, the accuracy of the documentation.

There are other performances and pieces which engage in much more challenging and transformative ways with the wider meanings and implications of dementia.  This does not make them superior or in any way more profound or effective as art.  But they do prove much more difficult for reviewers to deal with, as they have to engage with an entirely different (experimental) theatrical and performance tradition.  The pattern for reviewing is much less set and confident here.  There still may be a trace of the familiar “raising profound questions” line but the palette of language is likely to reference memory,  time-shifting, framing and disturbance (“unsettling”) with much less talk of performance.

It would be interesting to see how a traditional audience expecting a performance-style evening with dementia were ambushed by an experimental piece which dug a little deeper.  The chance of this happening is minimal as the audiences are significantly different and rarely cross over. 

Need for a richer engagement with dementia

Until more theatre provides a richer engagement with dementia (one which goes beyond the limits of a “truthful performance”) and more audiences and reviewers are prepared to move on in their language and thinking, we are stuck with the prevailing dominance of the mainstream media in framing dementia. This means dementia is seen as a modern plague, a doom enlivened only by minor miracles of care and humanity.  That is not a view of the world which I recognise as either profound or truthful.