The Nature of Forgetting

Devised by the Company

Theatre Re

Shoreditch Town Hall

From 18 January 2017 to 20 January 2017

Review by Howard Loxton

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This powerful piece of physical theatre is a study of dementia that attempts to capture the feeling of what it is like. One person can’t really know another’s experience, but it seems to do so very effectively and is in consequence very moving.

It is Tom’s birthday. He is only 55 but, though so young, he is already suffering from early stage Alzheimer’s. His daughter tells him, “Mike and grandma are coming: they are bringing a cake.” She takes out a jacket for him to wear and a favourite tie which she puts in the pocket as she explains to him, repeating information several times to make sure he has grasped it. But will he remember?

With the director Guillaume Pigé as Tom sometimes baffled and comatose, sometimes frantically trying to handle his confusion as the shrill repetitions of Alex Judd’s live music underscores the action, we are offered a montage that mixes present action with memory.

Not finding a red tie in the first pocket of the jacket in which he puts his hand, Tom looks for a different jacket and comes on a school blazer. It’s not necessarily a literal happening but something sparks off memories of school days that he recalls in flashes of recaptured detail.

As well as recent research by neuobiologists and interviews with those suffering from dementia, Theatre Re has been inspired by the work of Polish director the late Tadeusz Kantor. As Tom joins his classmates at their school desks, for any who saw it there will be a vivid reminder of Kantor’s The Dead Class. But though the sudden switches in Tom’s consciousness, the freezing of action at moments to match a mind in a muddle may recall that director’s presence controlling his actors right through the performance, there is no one to exercise control here. Yet there is a kind of logic.

From schooldays, memory moves on through courtship, graduation, marriage and back to the classroom. A desk disappears, a chair is whisked away, glasses appear as the rest of the cast reshape the environment, memories morphing like the shifts in a dream; sometimes recognition is immediate, sometimes there is a struggle to relate to a change, whatever sparked it.

The Nature of Forgetting gives a vivid sense of trying to hang on to memory and of distant memories lingering while short-term remembrance becomes increasingly fragile.

With movement that is often athletic and verging on dance, Pigé gives a touching performance suggesting a mind as rumpled as his shirt becomes but not shapeless, someone whose struggle brings real tears down his cheeks.

But this isn’t a solo performance. It relies on the precise interaction of the whole company: Louise Wilcox as his daughter, Matthew Austin, Eyglo Thorgeirsdottir and musicians Alex Judd and Keiran Pearson. They are not just part of Tom’s memories but his family too, a reminder of the effect that dementia has on those close to the sufferer, of the demands on their care and compassion.

Though the subject is serious, its handling is not without humour and while presenting a problem it is also a celebration of a life lived and still vividly recaptured. I found myself feeling uplifted, not depressed.