Your Last Breath
Written by the ensemble
Curious Directive aim to create engaging science-themed theatre, and they've struck rich raw material in the real-life story of Anna Bagenholm, who experienced a near-miraculous survival after an extreme skiing accident caused her to be trapped, immobile, under ice in the remote Norwegian mountains. Pinioned like this for 80 minutes, her body gradually froze and her heart stopped beating; but when she was pulled out and taken to the local hospital, the doctors obeyed the medical philosophy that "you're not dead until you're warm and dead", and so continued CPR for four hours until her body had thawed - and, amazingly, her heart started beating again.
Curious Directive are sparked by this story to explore the hinterland between life and death; metaphorically as well as actually, as their piece gives us a range of characters who carry their personal griefs with them, and whose main question is how a person may survive after death in the minds of their loved ones and in the continuation of their genes.
It's an impressively multi-faceted piece, expanding a series of variations on the themes of love, death and inheritance. A nineteenth-century geographer is on a posting to the Norwegian mountains to plot the landscape for the first time. A woman in 2011 is on a journey to climb one of the mountains and scatter her dad's ashes at the top (and to escape from her faltering relationship with her fiance). A man in 2034 is launching a new medical initiative to save lives by putting injured people in frozen suspended animation to give doctors more time to work on their wounds - as first discovered through Anna Bagenholm, and as used to save the man's own life when he was a baby. And snippets of audio interview with Anna are interspersed throughout.
Unfortunately the stories produce somewhat diminishing returns. The story of Nicholas, the Victorian cartographer, is very moving as, eking out a survival in the harsh mountain landscape, he thinks of his wife and infant son back home, wonders if he'll see them again or if ultimately they, rather than the map he's making, will be his legacy.
The modern-day story of Freija, escaping her city life and trekking the mountains with a Norwegian guide whom she is increasingly attracted to, has sympathetic elements. But the future-set story of Christopher, launching the new medical centre while grieving for his recently deceased mother, lacks the specificity that would be needed to make us care about him.
There's almost no conflict in any of the stories, aside from man's conflict with nature and with mortality; I do feel the company missed an opportunity to delve into some of the thornier human issues surrounding such advances in science and technology. How do people feel in the future about this new suspended-animation technique - are there protesters who argue that it is effectively killing people? What will be the impact for 19th-century Norwegians of their land being definitively mapped for the first time?
As it is, we get an involving and well-performed montage illustrating the desired points - a dramatised science documentary with living graphics - that doesn't quite have the intellectual sophistication that companies like Complicite bring to their maths- and science-inspired work. It is intelligently written though. An ancient Norwegian mountain song is nicely described as "a holographic multi-dimensional map of feeling", the idea being that the song doesn't so much describe the object, it is the object; a concept that's neatly echoed in visual terms when Nicholas's map-making is shown through coloured strings stretched across the stage, which are manipulated into tented peaks and twisting angles to become the physical landscape they are meant to represent.
Good performances from the young cast, particularly from William Cardozo Boohan as Nicholas and Gareth Taylor as the Norwegian guide Otto, both bringing great humanity; and from Elizabeth Holmes as Anna, her frantic physical movement well conveying the horror of a woman trapped in the grip of death, losing her own body.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury