Theatre: Death becomes them

Intimate Death The Gate London
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The Independent Culture
WOODY ALLEN spoke for a lot of us when he quipped that he's not afraid of dying, he just doesn't want to be there when it happens.

It's a widely shared view that the best death would be an unconscious one (sudden or in your sleep) and that the whole frightening and embarrassing business should be surrounded by the discreet hospital curtains of silence and solitude.

From her experiences of working as the staff psychologist at a Parisian palliative-care unit for the terminally ill, Marie de Hennezel has come to the belief that, properly cared for, the dying can live with an intensity and deep access to themselves that put those of us who are dying more gradually to salutary shame. Her book about this subject, Intimate Death, now becomes the basis of a fine, thought-provoking stage adaptation by the director Mick Gordon.

It could be an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience watching a bunch of actors impersonate once-living people with Aids or cancer of the uterus or degenerative paralysis. All too easy to be moved and uplifted in a theatre, when you'd run a mile from visiting a real hospice. But the tact and sensitivity with which the piece is directed and performed disarm cynicism. As with The Man Who, the analogous Peter Brook piece on neurological disorders, there is an admirable purity of focus on the full human being still intact (or potentially re-integratable) under the distortions of the condition. So, instead of performing the kind of virtuoso illness-acting that wins Oscars, the talented cast tell us their individual stories directly and engagingly.

There is just one hospital bed, and as each patient comes on in turn, he or she kicks the brake on it and briskly shifts it to a completely different angle, one of the many little dignified touches by which the production guards against this seeming like a conveyor belt of the interchangeably terminal.

Playing Marie de Hennezel, the excellent Gillian Barge carries round with her an atmosphere of attentive, therapeutic peacefulness. You sense the kind of super-simplicity that can be achieved only by the sophisticated. De Hennezel must, one fancies, be more like this than as she comes across in the cloying prose of her book. We see her trying to divine the source of the psychological pain and terror in each patient and gently making recommendations as to how this might be relieved - by, say, being frank, for the first time in their lives, with their parents. Conversely, as we witness in the case of a girl in a coma, it may be that the dying linger, waiting to be given permission to go by their stricken family. There are no easy solutions, it is implied, but there's a joy to be gained in fully living the mystery.

It struck me, watching these matters delicately developed in a theatre, that the philosophy of the hospice movement clashes intriguingly with the central tradition of Western drama. In tragedy, we want the hero to die in an annihilating sunburst of painful, isolating recognition. It is no disrespect to palliative care units to say that one wouldn't desire it for King Lear.

To 13 February (0171-229 0706)

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