Night of the living dead - the sequels

It's not exactly the most seductive of subjects but the latest season at London's BAC is death. Is there theatrical life beyond the grave?
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The Independent Culture

Battersea Arts Centre's decision to launch a season which gives free rein to creative responses to death has unleashed an eclectic programme. Music, comedy and tragedy will all be deployed to probe this most unsettling area of our thought processes. But then death makes demands on the imagination like no other aspect of existence.

Battersea Arts Centre's decision to launch a season which gives free rein to creative responses to death has unleashed an eclectic programme. Music, comedy and tragedy will all be deployed to probe this most unsettling area of our thought processes. But then death makes demands on the imagination like no other aspect of existence.

Every culture and each individual feels the imperative to work out a way of filling the pyschologically draining void left by the ending of a life. The inability to believe that life, which is about continuity, can ever come to a full stop and the deep need to continue the relationship with the dead person have led to engrossing practices past and present: religious constructs of an afterlife; superstitious fears about ghosts; emotional rebuildings of memory; Chinese ghost marriages; one-upmanship on Roman grave stones; the appeasing of spirits in Jamaica; the leaving of food and possessions in Egyptian pyramids; the barbaric Hindu practice of suttee; the fear-stoked horror-movie genre; even one housewife's decision to use her husband's ashes in a specially constructed egg timer.

The BAC season encompasses the post-modernism of Kazuko Hohki (formerly with the Japanese kitsch combo Frank Chickens), who will present a memoir of her priestess/ entertainer mother using computer animation, puppets, and video footage.

The Clod Ensemble promises a more reflective performance combining poetry, movement and music by Purcell, Schnittke, Dowland and Stravinsky. Corin Redgrave, now recovered from his Macbeth, gains inspiration from Oscar Wilde in De Profundis.

You can even design your own funeral thanks to the inter-active pleasures of Welfare State International, following the examples of Mohammed Al Fayed, who wants to be preserved in a glass pyramid on top of Harrods; Billy Connolly, who says (a joke?) he wants to be minced, or Iain Banks, who would like his ashes to go up in a firework.

You have to admire BAC for braving such a sensitive subject with multi-dimensional aplomb. A season on death could easily come across as cliched, heavy-handed, or simply crass. True, there is great potential for pretentiousness or conceptual flabbiness with many of the acts, and you strongly feel the imperative to "wait and see" before judging. But several of the artists have well-established, interesting track records. There is Hohki, whose response to her mother's death in Toothless, won critical approval and the fascinating (if variable) Simon Munnery of The League Against Tedium fame, while Thaddeus Phillips (who has collaborated with Robert LePage) and Frantic Assembly return with their most physically exciting piece, Hymns.

The spirit of the festival is summed up by Nabil Shaban, an actor who was born with osteoporosis and has never been able to walk. He writes: "Being born with a disability I had to come to terms with the subject of death earlier than most. The doctors told my mother I would be dead by the time I was seven (probably wishful thinking). By the time I was nine, at least three of my friends had died. It has always been my fantasy to die a martyr, I fancy dying by bomb or bullet. Another fantasy is to die in a car crash, making love with my girlfriend. Of course, we should mutually climax at the moment of impact."

Shaban's words stake out the territory between despair and fantasy on which the festival is built. While paying tribute to the devastating effects of death, the programme also seems to encourage a healthy flirtation with notions of mortality - breaking through the silent taboos which shroud responses to the deaths of those close to us - and contemplation of one's own life end.

There is, for instance, the idea of putting a jukebox in the bar, in which BAC regulars and nearby residents have programmed both light-hearted and soul-aching pieces of music which remind them of personal loss. There are discussions on topics with headings including "Who wants to Live for Ever?", and the whole festival starts off with a death party on 16 June.

This intelligent, risk-taking project manages to puncture the self-importance of death without trying to diminish it. A blast of fresh air is blowing across London from Battersea.

BAC 020-7223 2223 from 16 June to 15 July

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