The Mathematical Institute would seem at first to be a strange venue for staging a play but the minimalist set and semi in the round seating utilised by set designer Pete Ledwith, put together in one of the lower foyers of the building worked well as a hospital room, ward and offices and the faint whiff of Purell added to the veracity of the set.
Brian Clark’s play itself tackles a very difficult and little discussed subject, suicide, and in particular in the case of the play’s quadriplegic protagonist, assisted suicide. Although the play was originally written in 1972 current headlines demonstrate its modern pertinence and relevance. The play also covers some of the personal issues tied up in somewhat larger philosophical arguments: professional versus personal, objective versus subjective, religion, the law, guilt, mental health, mercy and violence to name but a few. However, thanks to the warmth and humanity brought to the performance by the cast, last night’s show did not feel an overly weighty or thoughtful construct but rather an intimate and personal exploration of the challenges posed by this moral dilemma.
The serious topic of the play is also offset throughout by humour on many levels. From Tom Mason’s clowning as John the hospital orderly – full of life, youth, hope and enthusiasm, to the central character’s self-deprecating humour – full of sarcasm, irony and despair. Indeed Matt Blurton, as the patient Ken Harrison, took on a very difficult role very effectively acting from the head up only and he lightly carried the central themes and arguments of the play. I personally err towards the “do not go gentle into that goodnight” end of this philosophical argument and expected the play to explore “the rage against the dying light”; Matt did cover a full gamut of emotion including rage, but against the eviscerating exposure of the severe limitations of his character. Consequently at the opening of the play I felt some antipathy toward the central character but through the excellent development of the character during the play I warmed to Ken and shed a quiet tear at the denouement of the play.
This journey is reflected in all the characters as they explore the personal, political and philosophical issues provoked by Ken’s exertion of his right to choose. The play itself is carefully written to allow for the exploration of these themes but this does not feel obvious or a construct thanks to the humanity and warmth of the performance of the cast. The subject of suicide and assisted dying is controversial and fraught with challenging dilemmas but this should not negate the necessity of discussing the subject. The humour and sensitivity of Oxford Theatre Guild’s interpretation of this play for me proved an edifying, interesting and thought-provoking experience, but as the play clearly demonstrates personal feelings and experience are central in such a scenario and I would encourage others to see the play during this week’s run and see what private thoughts and feelings the performance provokes.