Heading to see a play about voluntary assisted dying the week before historic state legislation on the same matter is passed, I made two incorrect assumptions. Firstly, I thought that I knew all there was to know about the divisive subject and that my opinion was fully-formed and unshakable. Secondly, I thought that, like so many stage and screen ruminations on death, the play would be quiet, pensive, and maybe a bit dull. Having my expectations shattered so brutally has never been such a valuable experience.
When the Light Leaves is a compelling piece of theatre that moves deftly between snippets of sentiment, tragedy and terror. With his first play, Rory Godbold has impressively crafted a piece of writing as profoundly personal as it is wholly relatable. The story of a young man’s fight against cancer and his own mortality is told mostly through conversations with the central figures of his final months—his boyfriend, sister and nurse. Instead of the contemplative tone I had anticipated, these non-chronological moments cover a spectrum of human emotion, oscillating between tonal extremes as Dan and the people around him try to come to terms with his inevitable death. Jayde Kirchert’s direction—aided by the versatile set and spine-tingling sound design—injects the dialogue with frenetic action, settling into the play’s quieter moments for only as long as necessary before lighting up the stage again in a flurry of movement, sound and energy. This breakneck pace is at times overwhelming, but in a way that feels appropriate in depicting a life shattered by a terminal diagnosis.
While mentally drafting this review, still rattled by the play’s conclusion, the one word that kept echoing in my head was authentic. The whole experience feels utterly real, from the patter of the dialogue to the no-holds-barred depiction of the cancer’s spread and Dan’s corresponding loss of control. This is of course confronting, but thanks to this underlying sense of truthfulness it never feels gratuitous. The performances never feel over-dramatic even in the most emotional moments, as each member of the cast earnestly expresses their character’s struggle. At the heart of this is Tomas Parrish’s phenomenal depiction of Dan. Playing a dying character with nuance and sensitivity is difficult—even more so when the text requires you to switch swiftly between different mental and physical states—but Parrish crafts a performance that is both understated and immensely impactful.
It’s this pervasive feeling of authenticity that shattered those two foolish assumptions I had entered the theatre with. Facing your own mortality is rarely, if ever, a slow and contemplative trudge towards an eventual end. It is ugly, disorienting and full of conflicting emotions. Even more complex is mulling over the decision to meet that end sooner, and this messiness is only multiplied by the loved ones involved in making this difficult choice. When the Light Leaves is a vital wake-up call to the reality of those who choose to go on their own terms, and an experience I recommend to everyone on the eve of this momentous legislation—especially if, like I did, you think you already know all there is to know.
High Line Theatre and Citizen Theatre’s production of When the Light Leaves runs from 12 – 23 June at La Mama Courthouse.