Theatre: In Death's other kingdom

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ON A SEA of rustling tissue paper, a miniature model of a coffin is bouncing along. Suddenly this receptacle bursts open, a male puppet springs out and before you can say "Home and Away", he is gleefully surfing over the waves, using the lid as a board. "Hey, Arny, having a great time!" he shouts.

This is John, a patient who has been in a coma for six months. A vacation is the last thing he would have taken in his life beforehand. Half an hour after this alleged internal experience, he was able to take the biggest vacation of all.

Arny is Arnold Mindell, an American therapist who specialises in treating people in near-death states, the author of Coma, Key to Awakening, and the inspiration behind Coma: stories from the edge of life, the new show from Improbable Theatre.

A strange, attractive mix of awe and irreverence, the piece provokes many deep questions, and like Intimate Death - Mick Gordon's recent project at The Gate about the work in a Parisian hospice for the dying - prompts a consideration of what theatre can specifically offer in terms of bringing home to people the insights achieved.

There's a comic moment near the start of Coma when a prolonged, uncomfortable silence is allowed to fall as we watch, on the other side of one of the receding black frames that form the set, a woman anxiously watching her comatose husband. "Not a particularly theatrical subject," breaks in Phelim McDermott with deadpan bathos.

In one sense, though, the topic is intensely theatrical. Communicating with people in a coma is a matter, we hear, of learning how to be with them, of entering their world, rather than impatiently trying to force them back to ours. You also have to overcome an instinctive reluctance to sit near them.

The potential embarrassment of being in the presence of other living beings is an experience theatre can revealingly concentrate and focus and, if I have a criticism of this funny, moving and highly suggestive piece, it's that it is disappointingly non-participatory. A promenade format, forcing proximity to the simulated coma-suffering, might have worked better.

The anecdotal evidence presented here raises tricky ethical problems and stirs some doubts. We hear of a Zurich professor who had always said that, should he lapse into a coma, he did not want to be kept alive. But then, when he is in that state, he communicates through a system of eyebrow twitches, that he is enjoying himself very nicely indeed, thank you, having an affair with a spirit goddess. An embarrassing twist to his family's dilemma.

One would like, though, to see the precise, yes/no questionnaire he was posed that led to this bizarre amorous revelation. One would also like to hear on what moral basis, therapists like Arny tell their comatose patients to believe in whatever internal experience they may be having and to let it unfold.

The very form of this counsel implies that the patient may still be capable of scepticism. The complexities of "double-state ethics" cannot be waved aside because of our desire to see death as the ultimate metaphor for that benign shedding of past selves which enables so-called "progress".

Paul Taylor