April 25, 2012

I saw Autobiographer, by the performer, writer and sound artist Melanie Wilson, this week at Toynbee Studios. The play is a 70 minute or so portrayal of a life unravelling through dementia.

Intense, compelling, tragic and utterly moving, the performance involves five characters, all are Flora at different stages of her life, from the age of 8 to her 70s. The setting was compellingly conducive to the staging, an intimate space where we all gathered around, occasionally interacting with the actors, all of whom could convincingly be us now, yesterday or tomorrow.

As Flora’s mind fragments and disintegrates, the actors move, switch places and space, as dementia, subtlely at first, inveigles its way in, and the space where Flora once stood becomes shaky, forcing her to move on into unknown and ultimately terrifying territory.

We are but stories, which are lost, replaced, or potentially forgotten through dementia. Our memories and stories are how we piece things together, how we make sense of stuff, and ourselves.

The play clearly reflects the research that it is built on, as slowly and steadily Flora, through all her selves, exhibits those features that characterise dementia, the repetition, the non-recognition, the desperation to make sense of the story, to hang on, as it all slips away and frustration, agitation, confusion and anger follow.

I so loved the analogy of the dress pattern, where Flora is the pattern, slowing fraying and being unpicked by her condition.

This moving performance particularly made me consider how interconnected and critical our stories are. We are born in the middle of someone else’s story, and so it continues, as we dip in and out of the story of ourselves and that of others.

The story of dementia, biographical or fiction, almost invariably focuses on family, on the acute inversion of old age into something child-like in its dependency, and the sufferer’s need for reassurance. Flora repeatedly asks about her daughter, and when she can go ‘home’.

In the end, all the Floras remain,’I am still here’, and you realise that, despite the condition, the irreparable changes that accompany dementia, Flora is indeed still here, present and real, even though her story, and ours, has changed.