Sometimes I laugh like my Sister follows – no, recreates, it is real – the moment Rebecca finds out her sister Kate has been shot and later pronounced dead. A BBC producer for the BBC Johannesburg bureau, Kate Peyton, 39, was shot while working in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, in 2005. With tragic irony, Kate had been posted to report on the country’s first steps towards peace. Various unravellings of the BBC’s response to this, some kind, some not so, are brought up in the play.
Watching this monologue by Rebecca Peyton, essentially about her own sister’s death and its aftermath, initially puts us in an awkward and unusual position as her audience. As Rebecca walks on stage, the gut reaction is ‘woh, this woman has lost her sister, we shouldn’t be here.’ The feeling is uncomfortable – a sense of inappropriateness in watching a person’s tragedy unfold.
This is important. It is part of the point of the play, which is about death and the awkwardness it provokes among its observers. In the aftermath of her sister’s death, Rebecca recalls well meaning but essentially unhelpful reactions from friends. She’s offered endless shepherds pies, her phone blares constantly — at one point she jams the phones together so her friends ‘could have a chat’.
What’s interesting is how this awkwardness evaporates from the audience as the play progresses. Watching Rebecca relive her grief we mourn with her – the barrier drops and the experience, as with the theme of death, becomes universal. This is heightened by knowledge that the ‘stories’ and the ‘acting’ of Rebecca’s story are real and by the intimacy the small theatre’s space creates.
The memories of the aftermath surrounding Kate’s death are surreal, funny and awful in equal measure; a trait of traumas, the absurd can be found everywhere. So, a cheese sandwich and Rebecca ‘eyeball’ one another, a pool attendant asks if she’s needed anymore now her employer’s dead and Rebecca envisages her post-Kate life as a train zooming on parallel tracks to her old life.
Rebecca speaks these memories slowly, as if every sentence is a surprise she has managed to form – this is painfully effective in evoking the effects of shock which notoriously impairs speech. Mostly though, the power of the surreal moments reminds us of the greatness of humanity and its suffering. By no means Hollywood perfection, the places where grief and shock make their mark in real life are rarely beautiful, rarely grand. In Rebecca’s world, a brother and sister embrace under under the ‘book detector arch thing’ of a public library, and the sweet, imperfect moment showing humanity at its most vulnerable is one of the most affecting of the whole night.
Unpicking and unravelling the less thrilling subject of death’s aftermath, rather than death as merely the crescendo or conclusion to a tragedy or drama, is unique. What we experience as a result is a collective sharing of our own individual sorrows and an appreciation of the beauty of grief itself. As Rebecca says ‘people are amazing’ and it’s right we step back and marvel at this, at the depth of human feeling and its resilience shown in the most extreme and terrible of circumstances.
Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister is at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays and Mondays: 15, 16, 22 and 23 January 2012. It received its London premiere on Sunday 8 January 2012 and is a new version based on the original play performed at the Edinburgh fringe 2011 and first shown in Switzerland in 2009.
By Belinda Liversedge