Arts: Intensive care

Playwright Simon Gray knows about suffering. Alcohol sent his beloved brother to an early death -and nearly sent him the same way. Paul Taylor met him in post-operative relaxation as his latest play hits the West End. Its title? `Life Support'
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Simon Gray is much possessed by death, and no wonder. First, the famously hard-drinking and chain-smoking playwright was told he was suffering from terminal cancer and had six months to live. This turned out to be a misdiagnosis. By an excruciating irony, it was his brilliant, beloved brother Piers - an academic at Hong Kong University, 10 years his junior - whom the booze successfully finished off, just a short time afterwards. Then, almost a year to the day - "it seemed to be completing some sort of ghastly circle, all to do with Piers" - Gray faced the prospect of winding up in the very place where he had last seen his brother - intensive care at St Mary's, Paddington - in the same alcohol-related condition from which his brother had died.

St Mary's Hospital is the setting for his new play, Life Support, which focuses on what happens to a marriage when the wife, as a result of a bee-sting, lapses into a persistent vegetative state. It's the dramatist's first foray into the West End since Stephen Fry's exhaustively well-publicised bunk to Bruges served a death sentence on Gray's earlier Cell Mates.

Gray got his own back in the prose memoir Fat Chance, a mordently brilliant exorcism of the demons of that debacle. The opening of Life Support coincides with the publication of his latest prose piece, Breaking Hearts. An 84- page novella dramatising the alcoholic breakdown of a lonely lesbian lecturer in English, the book seems already to have generated several times its own length in media coverage as the press have kindly invited the staff of Queen Mary and Westfield College, London (the establishment where Gray taught for 20 years) to contemplate their alleged fictional counterparts in an institution dubbed "the Dump" down the Mile End Road.

To agree to meet a journalist for lunch is an act of some generosity when you're in as frail a post-operative, convalescent state as Gray now is. He looks a couple of stone thinner than when I last saw him, but the effect - with the trademark glower noticeably less bloodshot and the mop of hair as public-schoolboyish as ever - can, at moments, seem one of spectral rejuvenation. "At present, I'm just strong enough to be impatient at not working and not actually strong enough to work," he declares. Off the booze for three months now - a glance round at the very full drinks table incites, he says, a feeling of "fury" - he's none the less anxious not to cramp my style and even recommends items on the menu he knows only by report. So, with a mixture of guilt and relief, I tuck into a plate of succulent sea bass, washed down with a couple of glasses of white wine, while he toys with a morsel of scrambled egg and fills me in on his medical misadventures.

He'd initially been treated for a throat complaint but, in the course of that, the doctors had discovered a punctured colon. "I was hallucinating in the most extraordinary way all the time and I was convinced that the whole hospital was involved in a conspiracy to keep me there when there was no need to. The fact that I couldn't stand up or take a step was quite irrelevant to the central spiritual fact that I was on top form really."

Matters were complicated by the recent precedent of his brother: even now, Gray can't recall, without prompting, the expression "intensive care" - "it really is a kind of Freudian blank". The upshot was that he did a Stephen Fry and absconded, having refused to sign the permission form for the operation. "It was absolutely crazy and opens up all kinds of questions. This man was clearly not fit to make any judgements, yet there was nothing they could do to force me. Fortunately, a terror of death prevailed..."

A partner, apparently, has no rights in such circumstances. But what about when a spouse becomes a vegetable? Gray explains the origins of Life Support. "I was approached to do a television play based on real people - a couple who had made a pact that, if either of them became vegetative, then the other would do everything in their power to bring the situation to an end. What happened was that the wife did in fact go into a coma after a car accident and her husband set about doing all they had agreed to do. He took the case to court and fought like a tiger. He'd even got to the point of arranging the funeral and, lo, she revived. The story the television company wanted was what happened afterwards - what life would be like when the wife discovered just how devotedly and assiduously her husband had gone about keeping his side of the bargain. The idea was great fun, but I found I couldn't do it."

Life Support (which opens tonight in Harold Pinter's production, starring Alan Bates) looks instead at the tragi-comic predicament of a man who insists on carrying on - doing both sides of the marriage, in effect - in the hope of jogging his vegetable-ised wife back to consciousness. His is a situation that has most of the pain of widowhood (the guilt about things done and not done; the ache of questions left unanswered etc) with none of its emotional privileges - the permission, say, to grieve freely.

It's made worse here by the blackly farcical circumstances of the cock- up in Guadalupe that puts the wife in a coma in the first place. The Bates character is a fraudulent travel-writer who makes up all his humorously accident-prone adventures in foreign parts in the safety of his hotel suite. For once, something actually happens in the spirit of his books and the ironic result is tragedy.

Gray isn't knocking this type of writing, though - "it's a perfectly decent way to make a living, if it gives pleasure to people". What he is pin-pointing is the risk of a writer being hoist by his own prose persona. A parallel would be the unputdownable production memoirs that Gray himself has published, which make the idea of the obsessive, tunnel-visioned writer / director engagingly hilarious. The joke would backfire badly, though, "if someone were to die because one hadn't bothered to answer the telephone".

The central couple in Life Support have a history of alcoholism - a topic that inevitably crops up a fair bit in our conversation. It was the "boredom, boredom, boredom, boredom" of academic life in Hong Kong and a freak-filled common room "to which only Dickens could do justice" that drove his brother Piers, author of a first-rate study of TS Eliot's intellectual development, to despair and to the bottle. As for the lecturer in his novella, Broken Hearts, she is so befuddled by gin that she can't even remember that she's been fired from the staff or that the inset lesbian-bondage fantasia, supposedly written out of spite by a vindictive student, is in fact her own masochistic work.

This last detail also seems to have escaped some young reviewers of the book - ironic support, perhaps, for the novella's ebulliently jaundiced view of the decline of English studies and general literateness in a PC- riddled world where literature is regarded as "a middle-class insult on the oppressed masses".

Gray confesses himself bemused, however, at the determination to categorise the book as a campus novel. It started off, he says, as an attempt to write straight pornography, but turned, "as is the way", into a study of lovelessness.

Full of praise for Pinter and Bates, who have had to "fly blind" with Life Support, Gray has been hors de combat during rehearsals and the play's pre-London tour because of his illness - a far cry, as he admits, from the kind of driven, all-consuming preoccupation with production matters recorded in such books as An Uncommon Pursuit. "One may be continuously mad," he laughs. "But the forms of madness change." Surveying the future, he confides, "I don't know what life is going to be like when it comes back to the reality of working without drink. I've never done it." And, clutching the remains of a bottle of elderflower water, he pads off home to build up strength for the attemptn

`Life Support' is at the Aldwych Theatre, London WC2 (0171-416 6003). Booking to 18 Oct

Simon Gray's book `Breaking Hearts' is published by Faber

`When Lazarev turned his back on the orchestra and conducted the audience instead, our spirits soared even higher. It was great fun -and it could only have happened at the Proms'

Robert Cowan on the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Arts reviews, page 11