Hazel McHaffie

Killing Roger

Today saw me wending my way, not to Charlotte Square for the Book Festival, but down to the Cowgate – the area below the Bridges – for a spot of theatre.

UnderbellyThe atmosphere in the Underbelly is dark, rather-cave-like, almost spooky, and seemed totally right for this particular play with its dark connotations.The cow in CowgateSparkle and Dark are a young London-based company who produce and tour with shows, as well as running workshops and storytelling sessions. Today they were performing Killing Roger which had excellent reviews in its London showing, so I approached with high hopes. And I was not disappointed.

Imagine the stage – a rather dingy old man’s room with one armchair, a table to one side, a sink in the background. Oh, and a vase of lilies. They’re brought by the well-intentioned Sheila but hold painful memories for the old man – of a hospital scene where he ‘couldn’t look‘, the smell of urine, and his abiding shame. Centre stage is the old man himself, Roger, (a magnificent puppet controlled by two of the cast), a photo of a young woman beside his chair. He’s chain-smoking and continually coughing (‘chest like a bombsite‘ but ‘the doctors are still finding ways to keep me alive‘) and inhaling lungfuls of oxygen. OK, yes, you medical know-alls, I know oxygen and smoking aren’t compatible too, but suspend judgement for now, if you please. We weren’t all sent to kingdom come in a mighty conflagration after all.

The atmosphere is helped by clever lighting and live guitar music and excellent choreography. So far, so superb.

Young Will (Billy to Roger) is a conscientious but very opinionated teenager. He’s studying English, History, Philosophy and General Studies at college when the opportunity to gain extra credits comes up: help in the community. He starts to visit this sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed, terminally ill old man. After a while self-interest turns into something warmer, and he continues to call long after the scheme requires it.

Roger presents some powerful challenges for Billy, about God, about life, about autonomy. The dialogue is compelling, at once penetrating and humorous. (Apologies if I haven’t captured it totally accurately – I don’t do shorthand and could only scribble in the gloom, trying not to miss any of the action.) When Roger offers Billy ‘a fag‘ the lad tries to suggest Roger would be better to ease off. Roger tells him roundly he’s a ‘sanctimonious bastard‘; at least doctors have spent years training to tell him what to do! But then he modifies his reaction, ‘it’s not your fault, it’s your culture‘. When Roger challenges Billy’s atheism and Billy wonders why the old man is always talking about God, Roger replies ‘When you’ve been touched by death you want to be connected to something. Know you’re not alone.’ Besides, ‘God ain’t dead – he’s just not what we think he is.’

Billy tells the old man he ‘loves reading, philosophy and that’, but always thought you ‘need to live the words’. Roger advises him to read the Bible and when he does, Roger asks him what he thinks of it. Billy replies, ‘All the people in it, they’ve all got this dignity.‘ Cue the big question: ‘Could you kill someone, Billy?’ ‘No, I’m a pacifist.’ ‘Not even in anger?’… ‘Could you do it for an old bloody fool?’ How far will the boy go for friendship’s sake? What does caring mean?

Roger is 87, he’s had enough. ‘Life’s for the young. They’ve got the time to do something worthwhile.’ But he survived the war and can’t bring himself to take his own life. ‘Not after they died so I could live.‘ Hence his appeal to Billy. But ‘I’m not a quitter.’ ‘Dignity, in’it?’ ‘Exactly, son.’

As the two talk and the actors portray the scenes, we see into Roger’s memories of himself as a lad, ‘Rog the Dodge‘, a different girl every night, until the blue-eyed Martha comes along and steals his heart. We see his pain as he turns away from her dying, the treatment for her illness worse than the disease. We witness too the swither of Billy’s troubled mind as he grapples with the old man’s request, hearing it echoing again and again in his head. The challenge to think for himself. ‘You’re not some record that life gets scratched onto and stays there forever. Is that what they teach you nowadays? Tell you you exist instead of letting you find out for yourself?’

Billy is clearly much moved by the prospect of losing his old friend. ‘You crying, Billy?’ ‘Nah.’ … ‘You crying, Billy?’  ‘Yeah.’ ‘Good man, Billy.’ And when the police and ambulance people arrive he laments there were more people in Roger’s flat that day than had been in months. The scenes segue smoothly and gracefully throughout, none more so than the final change where Billy is talking to the policewoman.

There were only 18 people in the audience today. A great shame. This is a company worth watching and a question worth thinking about.  Would I have responded as Billy did to Roger’s request? Would you?

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