Sunday 8 December 2019

When The Light Leaves - Midsumma Festival preview

Death is inescapable. We are all going to die. Unfortunately, few of us are given a say on how or when we will die. With the recent introduction of the Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD) Act in Victoria, where Victorians who are at the end of life (and who meet strict eligibility criteria) can now request access to voluntary assisted dying, Rory Godbold's When The Light Leaves is a timely and compelling examination of VAD legislation and what it actually means to the people who need it and returning to the stage for a second season during Midsumma Festival.

When The Light Leaves had its premiere season at La Mama in July 2019, which was coincidentally the same week that VAD was passed into legislation in Victoria. The timing of the production opened up plenty of debate on the topic between audiences and the creative team. "Being able to put this on while the state of play for the terminally ill shifted was an incredible thing," Godbold recalls. "It happened in the middle of the season, which led to different readings from the audience in the first and second week as the reality of choice in death changed around them. We had a forum after the play on the day the legislation came into effect and there was a whole raft of responses that were not the previous focus of responses. Just as people react differently to grief, the show has elicited a wide range of responses regarding choice on the end of life as people respond to the play on a personal level."

"It helps the audience get in touch with their own mortality and becomes a part of their process, either for healing or connecting with memories of the loved ones they have lost. For others it provides a safe space for them to consider their own mortality and relationships or it can reflect a truth about the wild mess death can be and people feel relieved to see that representation. There’s a point in the show where things shift for the characters dramatically and someone involved with the lobbying of Assisted Dying said they were so angry at me for doing that, as they knew intimately what I was trying to look at, which isn’t the most romantic view of death."

Tomas Parrish, who plays the protagonist Dan, shares similar thoughts from his time performing in the show. "
The audience response was profoundly affecting. It was fascinating watching people respond immediately after it ended. So many needed to speak with us and we made a conscious effort to see the audience and to thank them afterwards. At times we were given hugs and held tight by people we didn’t know, who needed to take that extra moment. Others cried and some had to see us one more time before they could fully process what they had experienced. A number of audience members had direct relationships to VAD and this was particularly poignant for them. The support we received really allowed us to blossom as the season continued."

In When The Light Leaves, Dan is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and is forced to decide how to end his life. As he does this, he also contends with the wishes and grief of his boyfriend Liam (Leigh Sully), his sister Kate (Veronica Thomas) and his nurse (Michelle Robertson). While the story is fiction, Godbold was inspired to write this after experiencing his father's death to cancer in 2015. "My dad was a strong advocate for VAD and better end of life care from what he had learnt as a palliative care nurse. After his death it felt right to share what I had learnt through his views on dying and bearing witness to his death," he explains.

"When The Light Leaves was written in a very long sustained way and linked to the experience of dealing with the grief of losing my father. Writing became a way to deal with the trauma, make sense of death, understand good and bad ones and to assert how important comfort is for our last few moments in this world. It started out about my dad with the episodic scenes stemming from his wisdom and ideas around death and dying but as time passed it became more and more about other fictional people. There were high personal stakes when sharing it with an audience that if they did not engage with it, it would have been hard not to take it personally. Or if I hadn’t rendered any truth and reality into it then it would be bad writing and not honouring my dad like I set out to do. But luckily the audience did see the heart of the piece."

It was this truth and reality in the script that drew Parrish to take on the challenging role of Dan, needing to cover a range of complex emotions - often simultaneously - while retaining an authenticity to the character. "I am drawn to art that strives to make a difference in society, and when the prospect of being a part of When the Light Leaves came about, there was no doubt in my mind that I wasn’t going to fight to be a part of this. This is a show that speaks to the heart of an issue that we, as a society, sweep under the rug and would rather not face," Parrish tells me. "I was drawn to Dan because there was so much of people I know - and knew - in him. In many ways, Rory wrote a script that was so personal to him and his family and yet it felt like everyone’s story at the same time, and Dan himself embodies this relatability."


For both Godbold and Parrish, the power of this play lies in its ability to question people's beliefs on voluntary assisted dying and opening up dialogue on this controversial legislation. "It is incredibly vital to bring change through theatre," Parrish says. "Often people don’t have the opportunity to allow their voices to be heard but with art and theatre we have the chance to open conversations and to present audiences with situations that may make them uncomfortable but ones they may not encounter day to day and challenge them. No opinion is judged in the show. You are presented with the situation and the characters in that situation and we ask you, “so what do you think?”"

Godbold further highlights the importance of how theatre can - and should - be political and address changes that need to be made in our communities. "Theatre should reflect society and while we sit and watch ourselves, it should challenge the status quo. Exploring the personal story that is debated in an often impersonal or agenda focussed way in our parliaments is my goal as a writer," he says. "Theatre is so important to change as it delivers truth to audiences. It must be visceral, immediate and confronting, which is what I wanted this show to be. As Tomas said, there is no dogmatic message in this work and the audience are able to access and connect with it in various ways. By witnessing the change in Dan, they connect to potential changes in themselves and realise how significant individual voices can be in creating change."


1. The one food you can’t live without?
Tom: Pizza!

Rory: Chocolate. Sugar is my best friend and worst enemy.
2. What is the worst smell in the world?

Tom: Leaking garbage bins in alleyways.
Rory: Vomit. It’s always vomit, isn’t it?
3. What is the strangest fact you know?

Tom: Mars has blue sunsets.
Rory: Support for Voluntary Assisted Dying is between 80-90% across Australia. However, Victoria is the only state with legislation to support choice. That’s a strange fact to me!
4. How long would you last in a zombie apocalypse?
Tom: Pretty far along I’d reckon - my competitive side would kick in!
Rory: I’m absolutely first dead or totally the sole survivor. No middle ground. 
5. Which animal are you most like?

Tom: A monkey.
Rory: Growing up near Phillip Island and because that location is mentioned in the play - a little penguin! Formally known as the excellently named fairy penguin!


Venue: Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham St, Albert Park 
Season: 29 January - 1 February | Wed - Thurs 7:30pm, Fri - Sat 9:30pm
                  Voluntary Assisted Dying forum after performance: Thu 30 Jan
Duration: 70 minutes 
Tickets: $35 Full | $30 Conc 
Bookings: Midsumma Festival 

Image Credits: Stu Brown

My review of When The Light Leaves' La Mama season in June 2019.

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