Saturday, May 5, 2012

Assisted dying is a hugely emotive and increasingly relevant topic.

Two very different plays have tackled the issue in the West End and I have seen both in the past week.

It feels unfair to compare both productions, although it is difficult to avoid as they ran concurrently, and as my experience when watching both was very different.

An Instinct for Kindness was both written and performed by the actor Chris Larner, at Trafalgar Studios.

Larner accompanied his ex-wife, Allyson, who suffered from severe multiple sclerosis, to Dignitas in Switzerland where she ended her life in 2010. The play is a monologue, where Larner tells and acts out the story of the journey, starting from the onset of her illness, through to the later stages, and her increasing desire and need to end her life.

It was not a decision that Larner agreed to collude with immediately. It took some years, during which time Allyson’s progressive clinical deterioration and physical dependence, and her unwavering determination, convinced him.

Nothing is straightforward about the decision to embark on the journey to Dignitas. Having negotiated many beaurocratic hoops, Allyson lived with the constant anxiety that one of her carers would discover her plans and report her. Her medical care during her illness does not come out well. A protracted period of ‘rehabilitation’ in hospital left her fearful, and this profound sense of fear stayed.

The latter part of the play focuses on the actual journey to Switzerland, and the time spent there awaiting the appointed day. This is harrowing stuff. Larner enacts all the characters engagingly, and there is fun and laughter amidst the pathos. I felt present in the Dignitas room, and utterly moved, as Larner read to Allyson from the book she would never finish, and as their son called repeatedly, beseeching her to change her mind.

‘I don’t want to die, I just don’t want to live like this.’

For Allyson, living with end-stage MS was intolerable, unbearable and unendurable, and the worst possible outcome would have been failure to end her life. Much as I wanted to change it, I knew that this was the ending that Allyson needed and chose.

In Reunion, by John Caine at Jermyn Street Theatre, Raymond (Peter Guinness) has advanced motor neurone disease and is cared for by his wife Antonia (Roberta Taylor). Raymond wants to end his life, but can only do so with his wife’s assistance. Initially reluctant, she eventually agrees to mix together the lethal potion. There is no trip to Switzerland. We never leave their kitchen. Yet much goes on and is discussed in that room, including the couple’s relationship and Raymond’s affairs, their rarely seen daughter Laura, Raymond’s anger, and their shared memories.

Only at the end does assisted dying come to the fore. Suddenly it is all over. It felt too precipitous, rushed, even rash. As a viewer, I did not feel that I was brought along, persuaded, convinced, or even involved.

It is good that the issue of assisted dying is thematically taking centre stage. It is not something that will just go away, and as increasing numbers travel to Dignitas in Switzerland every year, the pain and suffering for all involved needs to be openly acknowledged.

At both performances, in small intimate theatres, I looked around at my fellow viewers and wondered what other stories were also present. Hopefully, they saw or felt something that touched on whatever personal reason brought them there.

I did.