'The grief is big but I can share it by entertaining'

A new season at BAC tackles our fear of death. Kate Berridge finds much to enjoy in its morbid offerings
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Social death acquired a new meaning last week when Battersea Arts Centre staged a "death party" to launch Matters of Life and Death, a month-long festival on the theme of death and dying. Given that death is life's gatecrasher, it was surprisingly upbeat. Punters and performers sat in pall-black darkness eating Twiglets and sandwiches from a (s)morgasbord selection, and chatting about mortality. Small talk was made bigger by the presence at the bar of an open coffin complete with "corpse". The "deceased" probably never guessed that her work experience would entail a near-death experience, but she was dead good.

Social death acquired a new meaning last week when Battersea Arts Centre staged a "death party" to launch Matters of Life and Death, a month-long festival on the theme of death and dying. Given that death is life's gatecrasher, it was surprisingly upbeat. Punters and performers sat in pall-black darkness eating Twiglets and sandwiches from a (s)morgasbord selection, and chatting about mortality. Small talk was made bigger by the presence at the bar of an open coffin complete with "corpse". The "deceased" probably never guessed that her work experience would entail a near-death experience, but she was dead good.

The season has been brewing for four years. Tom Morris, director of the BAC, observed that regular creative brainstorming sessions for artists and performers were becoming dominated by discussions of death. Simultaneously, he witnessed many of his friends experiencing the deaths of their parents as an ambush for which they were completely unprepared. "I've become aware of how dreadful we are at dealing with death. Bereavement is a very powerful taboo and yet there is a vast subculture of death - lots of artists want to address it," he says. "And on the internet, death-related sites range from planning your own funeral to assisted suicide."

This paradox distinguishes the modern way of dying, where there is a gulf between death as entertainment and death as crisis management. From the fashion for formaldehyde in the art gallery to the popularity of what Julie Burchill once described as "I'm dying, I am" writing, morbidity is à la mode. The pathologist is the new breed of popular detective, less concerned with whodunit than what was done. Popular culture is suddenly clotted with death and yet while we have a strong stomach for Silent Witness, we do not deem our own dead suitable family viewing. The living room is literally that and we despatch the dead to the false domesticity of the funeral home, and delegate death to paid professionals.

The BAC season is an attempt to redress the balance, to nudge us from carpe diem to memento mori. "We are not interested in theatre in the sense of people purchasing a ticket for entertainment," says Morris. "We want to provide a doorway to conversation. Given the social stigma of death, talking and listening to artists may be a good place to start."

Kazuko Hohki's performance, Toothless, is a multi-media elegy. With punk, puppets and computer animation she charts her mother's demise from mouth cancer. "She looked like a strange pet in the corner of the living room." A macabre puppet depicts her mother in the final stages of life, when she was attached to "a spectacular mucus-sucking machine".

What could be stomach turning is heart wrenching. In a surreal and lyrical requiem, Hohki sings of nocturnal trips to a 24-hour convenience store to buy sanitary towels to strap to her 75-year-old mother's bleeding face. Such searing details are tempered by a narrative which is above all gentle, affectionate and humorous. Interestingly, the audience was cautious about laughing until Hohki looked at us squarely and said, "Don't be so solemn! You can laugh." This theatrical moment mimicked real life where we no longer have a protocol for death. We do not know how to behave, what to say, whether we're allowed to laugh. Of Toothless, Hohki comments, "The grief is big, but I can share it by entertaining."

A different personal perspective is provided by the actor Nabil Shaban who has never been able to walk as a result of osteoporosis. "I can rattle off the death lists of people I've been close to who have died. You don't die of disability, but it makes you vulnerable to heart disease and suicide. Five of my friends committed suicide before the age of 20, and a third of all the people I'd been close to died before I'd turned 30. The disabled bereaved have not been taken into account." Nabil's NecroSpace is a cave installation displaying a range of internet death sites and a video for people to record personal musings on mortality. In a niche, a human skull ("I picked that up in Turkey from a battlefield and it has played Yorick!") lies alongside a special effects skull with grotesque worms in the eye sockets.

It is a neat metaphor for the real-life split between fantasy death and death as existential crisis. "Not to be" has become an unaskable question. Our constant diet of pretend death is at odds with our tendency to act in real life as if death does not exist. It's appropriate that a theatre is encouraging people to face the final curtain. BAC deserves good audiences: it's high time more people used the D-word.

'Matters of Life and Death': BAC, SW11 (020 7223 2223) to 15 July. Kate Berridge's book, 'Vigor Mortis', will be published by Profile Books early next year

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