"[A] cathartic, challenging experience." Pic by Stu Brown.
When The Light Leaves is a play with a brutal, unflinching approach to terminal illness, as it reckons with what it is to be young and in the grip of something which will kill you. Dan (Tomas Parrish) is a hotel receptionist in his early 30s who has been diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. Many of the earlier scenes of the play depict the struggles Dan undergoes with his high-strung partner, Liam (Leigh Scully) and his overworked sister, Kate (Veronica Thomas). With the assistance of stoic palliative care nurse, Alice (Michelle Robertson), they must negotiate how best Dan is to spend his final days, and in what condition. Refreshingly, it does not sanitise or gloss over this pain. The writing is (for the most part) powerful and succinct, and the emotional weight of the play is carried admirably by the performances of the actors.
This said, a poetic prelude to the play’s events falls utterly flat, and the stage design elements of several props hung up by fishing line feels distracting and gimmicky, despite how minimalist the rest of the stage design from Stu Brown is. The first few scenes feel self-conscious and marred by artifice, like the play can’t help but remind the audience it’s theatre whenever a sense of authenticity arrives. Once the play emerges from its opening, however, it becomes gripping and irresistible — the convoluted sense of conflict between patient and nurse prompts standout performances from both Parrish and Robertson.
The play has a political bent to it with its discussion of illicit drugs that might be used to end Dan’s life peaceably, which feels especially timely considering the Victorian assisted dying laws come into effect during its run. Some of the lines feel polemic in a way that jars, but ultimately, the deep questions about assisted dying are handled well in a way that firmly places the play in a position of advocating for freedom of choice, but scenes which discuss it remain heartfelt and tender. Michelle Robertson’s performance is particularly impressive in this regard: the shifts and uneasiness around the professional relationship between nurse and patient are handled impeccably well. The strengths of When The Light Leaves come through towards the end of the play: the imagery of the closing scenes is visceral and difficult to watch, and the emotional thrust relentless. On realising the play was about to ‘go there’, in terms of depicting the grisliness and pain of dying of cancer, WE admit to a sense of trepidation — we’ve seen too many plays display ill bodies in a way that’s voyeuristic and out to get a cheap shock. When The Light Leaves, though, is respectful, empathetic and honest the whole way through. Deeply uncomfortable, certainly, but then, that’s death. Rory Godbold has done a superb job in writing this play, and as a piece of theatre, When The Light Leaves is a cathartic, challenging experience.