‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’

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I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

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