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“Learning how to die” – reflections on a play at Hospice UK’s Annual Conference

Author: Stephen Clark, Senior Media and PR Officer
24 November 2016
  • Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UKs Annual Conference 2016
    Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UK's Annual Conference 2016
  • Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UKs Annual Conference 2016
    Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UK's Annual Conference 2016
  • Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UKs Annual Conference 2016
    Luca Rutherford performing at Hospice UK's Annual Conference 2016

Stephen Clark reviews "Learning how to die", a play by Luca Rutherford performed at Hospice UK's Annual Conference 2016.

On Thursday 17 November the Hospice UK Conference took a theatrical turn and hosted Luca Rutherford’s solo show, “Learning How to Die”.

The play reflects on death from two distinct angles – the story of a man named Iain who has a terminal cancer diagnosis and offers his thoughts through audio recordings, while the story of a young woman, the second absent character, develops in parallel to Iain’s. This all happens beneath a constantly updating counter projected above the stage. The counter creeps up in multiples of 1.8, this is the number of people who die in the world every second we are informed by our host. The number is for us to see, not for her, she adds.

In the presence of this ever-climbing mortality statistic the questions begin. Why is it more comfortable to see this spiralling number than consider the single death of someone close to us? Why can we not accept that each of us, our friends and family, will contribute to this anonymous figure? What is it about death that terrifies us?

The stories are told, or rather curated, by Luca, who holds the stage and audience with impressive bearing. As the relationships between Luca and the characters become clearer and her proximity to them revealed, so is the manner in which both series of events converge on a similar conclusion. Iain is Luca’s father and has terminal prostate cancer. The recordings we hear are from Luca’s conversations with him. When Luca began to make this play with her father’s diagnosis in mind, her close friend was killed in the Germanwings plane crash in March 2015, hers is the second story. The complexity of death and dying becomes clear. Dying is an indefinable state – it may be a prolonged period of illness and treatment, it may be the ten minutes of awareness before an imminent tragedy, it might be more brutally curt. The process of dying varies massively; the constant is that life precedes it.

The use of space reflects the emerging themes and relationships as the key areas of stage where the stories are told from appear to move closer – or perhaps the performances given in each expand to close the gaps between. Furthermore, the space between audience and performer shrinks as the intimacy of the story becomes clear and lines are delivered in quieter, more contemplative tones that cause deeper reflection from those watching.

I have already noted the questions posed by this play, these are questions that are not really intended to be answered but reflected on personally. Death and dying may always phase us, we may instinctively fear our own demise or the loss of a loved one, but the time until that point should not be taken for granted. The intimacy of the performance is drawn closer as Luca reflects on the pointless arguments and anxieties that the audience has offered. The answer to how we learn to die, appears to be in rethinking our relationship with life and offering another question in return – if we reframed theses arguments or anxieties as regrets, or if circumstance forced us to, would we think that was time well spent?

This is not supposed to be sad, although the sadness of losing a loved one is not rejected in the show, this is supposed to make us reflect on living. I asked one audience member if this was all very obvious to them as a palliative care professional, their response was that when you work so close to an issue, you can blind it from your personal life. This particular performance was a well-timed reminder, during a conference that saw some 800 delegates from the hospice world in attendance, to practice what we preach.

To perform a play about our relationship with death and dying for an audience almost exclusively made up of palliative care leaders and clinicians may sound intimidating. It was clear from the reception that there was no cause for hesitation.

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