Imagine you’re a 34-year-old man with a job that while you might not love, it allows you to live the happy life you lead. What you do love however is your boyfriend and the house that you share. You have dreams of travelling the world together. Now imagine getting diagnosed with terminal cancer. What happens next? In Rory Godbold’s first play When The Light Leaves, this becomes a reality for one person who needs to make one of the most tragic – and controversial – choices of his life.
When The Light Leaves non-linear narrative consists of numerous shifts in time and perspective that allows for the story to be told with significant care and development. Fortunately, the cast that has been assembled is more than able to meet the challenges of this production, especially Tomas Parrish who plays Dan, the aforementioned 34-year-old. He displays great ability to equally highlight Dan’s resolve and fear and in switching from being broken and pained to carefree and hopeful. Leigh Scully elicits a touching sincerity as Liam, Dan’s boyfriend, as he finds himself in denial of the future that is facing the couple. Together with Parrish, the relationship they present on stage feels like it has a genuine history and with a deep felt connection between them.
As Kate, Veronica Thomas brings out a strength and determination as she desperately juggles dealing with her brother’s diagnosis as well as several other events that begin to hack away at her tough facade. Thomas shows the complexity in her character with her well-considered physicality and tone in her speech. Michelle Robertson as Alice, Dan’s nurse, is the objective voice in this story but Robertson still hints at how her past has impacted her life and her relationship with Dan. She attempts to be of comfort to Dan, but the difficulties in remaining professional in these situations comes through with Robertson’s performance.
Godbold’s story covers much ground and while it is told at a fast pace it consists of thoughtful and considered scenes that give you the opportunity to contemplate your own reactions to what unfolds. At times you wonder why a certain scene has been included but by the conclusion of the play you understand that there has been a purpose for everything that has been shown and told in When The Light Leaves.
There’s a reason why the story and characters feel so real in this play. In 2015 Godbold’s father, who was a palliative care nurse and dying from cancer, was featured in The Age being handed nembutal, a life-ending medication. While this is not about his father, When The Light Leaves stems from Godbold’s experiences of watching his father deal with his diagnosis and has no doubt helped him focus on what he wants to explore with this work. Jayde Kirchert’s direction supports the fragmented nature of the show and keeps the story highly personal with many scenes being played out with only two actors at a time. Her skill in depicting the pain that Dan is feeling is tense and horrific but told with love and sensitivity.
Aislinn Naughton's costumes provide insight to the lives of the characters with Kate’s office attire indicative of her no-nonsense attitude and Liam’s casual jeans and shirt pointing out his laidback nature. It’s also the small detail that adds authenticity to the characters, such as the cross that Alice wears, linking to her past career aspirations.
The performance might be staged in a “black void” but Stu Brown’s set design of having apples, books, bread and a mug hanging from fishing line, floating in space, serve as a constant reminder of the domestic setting that this play is taking place in. It also allows for instant and clear scene changes with a character grabbing one of these props to show this.
Gina Gascoigne’s lighting design is soft and draws shadows on the cast when more intimate moments are presented and glaringly bright at others. A lone light hangs in the centre of the stage and is swung like a pendulum gently signifies the fleeting nature of life and time passing by. Similarly, Imogen Cygler’s sound design supports the emotional depth of the characters, particularly during the scenes where the story is told through Dan's eyes.
In four days, Victoria will become the first state in Australia to enact the Voluntary Assisted Dying Act (VAD), which will allow people who are in the last stages of terminal illnesses and are suffering, to end their lives. While there are strict requirements and processes that must be met, it is proving to be a volatile act. Plays like Godbold's are vital for opening up conversation and to challenge people on their ideas towards such issues sooner rather than later.
There is a huge amount of talent present in the cast and crew of When The Light Leaves, resulting in a moving exploration of what it means to allow people to live out the final moments of their lives with dignity, compassion and in control. It is a bold and thought provoking piece of theatre that leaves you asking yourself a question you hope you never have to answer.
Venue: La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond St. Carlton.
Season: until 23 June| Wed 6:30pm. Thur - Sat 7:30pm, Sun 4:00pm
Tickets: $30 Full | $20 Conc
Bookings: La Mama Theatre
Image Credits: Stu Brown