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By Mark Butler

August 18th, 2014

Dementia – a suitable case for comedy?

Six Billion Suns is a theatre piece from the Czech Teatro NoD company, currently running as part of the Edinburgh Fringe.  This is a rare, dementia-themed show out of over 3000 which now make August in Edinburgh the unmissable, rather overwhelming, cultural phenomenon it has become.   

The piece focuses on a group of people with dementia seemingly on their own in a non-specified context.  The characters are presented to the audience to be observed and understood thorough physical humour, slapstick and improvisation. 

Black Hole Imagery

The central image for the hour-long piece is the “black hole” of memory loss, conceived as a blend of black comedy, musical numbers and group character improvisation.  This is black hole in its cosmic meaning as well as metaphor.  The show is in part subtitled and interactive.  

The production makes it clear that the 5-strong cast were “in direct contact with dementia patients”, to inform their roles.  This is a well-known way of seeking authenticity and of deflecting criticism about issues of “accuracy”.  From the outset the focus is very largely on the external signs of dementia (the physical tics, the loss of sexual inhibition, the “funny” movements and repetitions).  Clear narratives of personal history and identity do surface as straight interludes, cutting through the mayhem.  These are well-packaged and movingly delivered.  There is a less successful element of audience challenge (participation would be the wrong term), in the form of an awkward interaction around collective memory of a piece of text. 

People or Cartoons?

There may be potential for such an approach to get under the skin of dementia.  The execution here simply sees the characters remain as cartoons, unable to emerge as individuals with believable inner worlds.    

This misfiring may be down to the uncertain purpose and inconsistent tone of the production as a whole. The different styles and tones of each element and style crash into each other rather than spark. 

Cultural Differences?

But the idea of a comic portrayal like this one perhaps raises issues about the different perceptions of dementia and older people across Europe. 

Is there a different engagement with old age in ethnic and national traditions and cultures reflected here?

Or is it more that those who spend only a little time with people with dementia, as part of a theatrical project, are tempted to see “demented people” (or at least the physical manifestations of dementia) as having inherent comic value.  I was certainly not convinced by this production, which seemed more like a shallow excuse to mock. 

The Need for Challenge

That said, it is rare to see a production attempt to do something imaginative and challenging around dementia. Teatro NoD are to be congratulated for the attempt.  It is right to counter the po-faced, slightly righteous documentary approach to dementia, which has plagued a number of theatre pieces in recent years.  And there is a necessary role in undermining the shameless manipulation of emotion which has become associated with dementia in the arts.  This might even stretch to the comic but it has to be convincing.  The tag of an “authenticity” gained from contact with “real” people with dementia is really not enough.   

Dementia certainly lends itself to a rich, multiple-layered exploration.  Dementia is ripe for a genuinely transformative, even comic, piece.  But this is not it.

There are some interesting prospects however coming up at the Luminate Festival running in Scotland from 1 October  http://www.luminatescotland.org/ so maybe there is something more nourishing to look forward to soon.

Image courtesy of Neil Conway