For the longest time, before playwright Nick Payne emerges for his own one-man play, there is just a lone chair staring back at you from the stage with a clinical glass of water next to it. Oh dear. Is our performer OK? And where is he – shouldn’t the play have started thirty-five seconds ago? The second we all start hypochondriacally thinking about unfilled chairs, absence and mortality, The Art of Dying has begun in earnest.
Payne emerges, sits, and reads his forty five-minute monologue, interweaving the stories of three terminally ill people, each of which throws up the question of how humans are supposed to mitigate the world’s most horrid cliché – death. Maggie Noonan of Milton Keynes seeks euthanasia, steering around hackneyed British ideals of a dignified end. Richard Feynman, the famous American physicist, buries himself in medical textbooks, setting ultimate faith in science and reason only to end up searching for a form of spirituality, telling reassuring white lies to his fiancé who is dying of tuberculosis.
Such lies are the worst of clichés and in the third narrative – Payne’s own – the play argues that euphemisms around death are the most indelicate elements of all language. Reflecting on the time he was informed his hospital-bound father was ‘poorly’, Payne asks whether ‘poorly’ would not be a better word for a sick cat. Objectively, he looks upon his ailing dad as ‘fat-footed’ due to swelling, and with ‘pathetic breathing’. He also recounts how all the hospital clichés around ‘cultures of optimism’ leave him unaware of how to act in the morgue. He fixates on a ‘ridiculous velvet onesie’ in which his dead father has been dressed, and also on his own assumption he will have to draw the man’s eyelids closed – because that’s what they do in the movies.
The overall plea is for authenticity of emotion – and duly enough, there are audience snivels to be heard, because the stories are told with touching humour. Payne’s prose is erudite and precise – ‘it was Christmas Eve-Eve’ – which doesn’t always assist his plea however many pseudo-naturalistic ‘um’s and ‘ah’s are drafted in. But sometimes it’s those strange little details that we remember in times of great emotional upheaval, and maybe Payne’s saying it is this obsession with propriety that is man’s most terminal, and inevitable, condition of all.
The Art of Dying runs until 12 July at the Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.