Hazel McHaffie

Killing Roger

Art and mental illness

Friday evening and here I am in the transformed square of the beautiful old Medical School where I so often patrolled in days of yore. The Medical School transformedI’m here to watch The Fantasist by Theatre Témoin. I met the producer, director and principal actor at the symposium on Thursday – another young company who combine art and storytelling around themes questioning contemporary social issues; other artists beating a similar drum to my own. So I simply had to fit this one in. And they very generously gave me a complimentary ticket. What an honour.

Theatre Témoin brought this production to the Fringe last year to excellent reviews, so it’s saying something that they’re back again this year with the same show. Playing to full houses again too. As with Killing Roger, The Fantasist includes puppetry to excellent effect. (It’s been a revelation to me understanding the special role puppets can play in these dramas, and a pleasure to see them employed with such skill.)

I’m on the front row so don’t miss a thing.The stage The basic story? Louise has bipolar disorder. We first meet her tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep. Her mental anguish is captured by inanimate objects doing crazy things and, though many in the audience reacted with laughter, the build up of atmosphere touched a more raw nerve for me. It’s scary entering the world of the mentally ill, and I’ve long been aware of the fine dividing line between sanity and insanity. I’ve hovered perilously close myself at times!

For Louise, the boundaries between the real and the fanciful grow increasingly blurred, and she becomes entangled in a relationship with a seductive stranger who opens up a world of exhilaration and magic to her. When he’s around she feels alive and ‘good‘. But to the onlooker, the destructive elements of her fantasies are all too evident.

Throughout, the metaphor of speed is used most effectively. The changing rhythm of the thrumming heartbeat. The calm slow empathy of the community psychiatric nurse, Josie, (‘my jovial jailkeeper‘) is a perfect foil to Louise’s manic behaviour and speech. Julia Yevnine – who plays Louise – is herself French and her ability to gabble deliriously in both languages is impressive: a furious game of ping-pong played on an express train. When depression strikes, the pain is palpable, Louise is immobile; Josie, and Louise’s friend, Sophie, speed up.

The endless seesawing of moods, the exhausting demands, the threat to relationships, the constant dread of falling into a dark chasm, the stranglehold the illness exerts, all are captured most effectively. At once mesmerising and impressive. And authentic, because Julia is utterly convincing – helped perhaps by her own firsthand experience of the illness (her mother has it).

I have several friends who have bipolar disorder, and I know the devastation it can wreak on families, so I’m delighted to see this illness portrayed so sympathetically, and to know from review comments that audiences are moved by the messages. This is exactly what we need.

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A moral quagmire

I hope you’ve been rejoicing in the several days of silence. Things have ratcheted up several gears chez moi, though – final proofs for the book have been checked, a new website created, this website updated … I won’t bore you with the rest or the detail.

And now, here I am back at the Book Festival again, in the Spiegeltent this evening. The subject of the session is … don’t groan … The Ethics of Dying. Look, I didn’t put this Book Festival programme together!

The Spiegeltent

But the organisers reckon it’s expedient to consider whether it’s ‘time to reevaluate our thinking‘ on this subject now we have so much power over life and death, and advances in medicine are allowing us to keep people alive so much longer than nature ever intended. So who am I to argue? It’s a question I’ve often asked in conferences and seminars: just because we can, does it mean we should?

And on the flip side, what do we think about assisted suicide for those people who’ve had enough of life? Is it right to stop them? OK, we did that last week too, but hey ho.

Inside the Spiegeltent

It’s a strange feeling sitting here. Exactly five years ago I was wheeled into this very tent as the author of Right to Die, debating this very issue alongside Baroness Mary Warnock, with Richard Holloway in the chair. Tonight the author is Gavin Extence and the academic, Professor of Divinity, David Fergusson, with Richard Holloway in the chair.

Extence has recently published his debut novel, The Universe versus Alex Woods, which is curiously similar to Sparkle and Dark’s, Killing Roger, which I told you about last week: young man meets old man, old man wants to die, young man has to decide where he stands. But he’s not talking about it; he’s presenting the case for assisted dying based on the research he did for the book. Curious choice, and I hear mutterings from various ‘older’ folk about his not having lived yet, all theory, second hand.

Richard Holloway maintains his customary firm grip on proceedings, dismissing irrelevancies and keeping the debate focused. He sets the tone for a much more moderate discussion by saying it’s not a good/bad divide, but a matter of opposing goods, and both speakers echo that. And he points out that it’s right and proper that we should be discussing this matter and feeling a sense of anguish about it. We shouldn’t be dismayed that we find it difficult.

Extence’s main points are that technology and advances in medicine are the main reasons why we have a problem with aging or ill people living beyond the point they would choose to. Dwindling resources and poor care mean we are heading to a situation where only those who can afford it will be able to die well, so for him the pressing issue is freedom of choice. His solutions: learn from the experience of other countries who allow assisted dying; clarify the law for relatives; educate society in relation to end of life; fund quality research into these horrible diseases.

Fergusson makes the point that doctors no longer have the latitude to quietly help people to die, and in consequence the old fear the dying process. Repeated parliamentary bills have polarised opinion unhelpfully, with both sides tending to caricature the other and present them in an unfavourable light. As a theologian he declares himself in support of the notion that life is God-given and to be used responsibly, but he fully accepts that some lives should not be prolonged unnecessarily, and that people should be able to exercise some choice in the manner of their dying. He further concedes that even though he might not choose to end his own life, he feels uncomfortable with the idea of imposing his view on others. Hurrah! say I.

The problems for him relate to public safety, not prohibition. The difficulties of specifying safeguards, knowing when death is less than 6 months away, being sure the wish to end a life is sustained and for the right reasons. He fears a shift in the law might make certain people more vulnerable and divert attention away from good palliative care. Doctors do not want to take on this task, and Fergusson feels it shouldn’t be forced on them. But he doesn’t like the idea of specialists in ‘killing’ either. He concludes that the law must be tailored to all, not just to hard cases. Therein lies a real problem, say I.

There are seven disabled people in wheelchairs at the front of the tent and predictably they leap in with questions. Most of the comments lament attitudes and provisions which make life intolerable; things which could be improved with more money and better education.

An advocate of assisted dying calls for accuracy in quoting statistics: the incidence of assisted suicide abroad is very small and most people who subscribe to it never actually avail themselves of the drugs; it’s more an insurance against a lingering or intolerably undignified or painful death which in fact allows them to live longer.

As always, the particular difficulties of those who are no longer mentally competent to make the choice for themselves comes up. And the importance of compassion and excellent care. Assisted suicide is not a genuine choice if it’s in response to substandard provision.

David Fergusson picks up on the repeated invoking of human rights and autonomy, reminding the audience that all of us operate in relation to other people; what we choose for ourselves affects them too. Wise words.

Richard Holloway sums up the discussion as temperate, elegant, modest and humane, and he takes two votes at the end. There’s a clear majority in favour of having some provision for people in certain circumstances to be assisted to  commit suicide. And no one has changed their mind as a result of what they heard tonight. C’est la vie!

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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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Strength in collaboration

Well, our lovely city has turned into bedlam once more as the festivals get into full swing. Stalls, tourists, artistes, craziness, noise, performances, wherever you turn.Festival cityBut I’m conscious that I view the events differently now that I write fiction. Which reminds me … writing a guest blog this week for Sparkle and Dark Theatre Company I was quite shocked to realise that I’ve been a novelist for almost twenty years now. Of course, for over half that time I was also working full time at the University as a researcher, but still … twenty years! Hard to believe.

A lot’s happened in those decades. Not least an increase in the number of people working to illuminate science through the arts, compared with when I first saw a niche for myself in this role. So I was delighted to be invited to participate in a couple of events designed to bring together artists and scientists. This collaboration has been inspired by Sparkle and Dark’s new play, ‘Killing Roger‘, which raises contemporary bioethical issues, and is being performed during the Festival Fringe (and yes, of course I’ll be there –  next Monday actually. With bells on!). Sparkle and Dark have got together with The Mason Institute at Edinburgh University, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, to host these additional events. Hats off to them.

The first is a debate on assisted dying, the subject of ‘Killing Roger’. Ahah! Ears pricked. As you know, one of my novels is about this very issue, and I’ve maintained a keen interest in developments since. A panel of experts will lead the discussion and there should be lively exchanges, probably a smidgeon of dispute too. I have my own solution to the current legal impasse – question is: will I have the courage and opportunity to present it?

The second event is a symposium to discuss the place of the arts within policy and practice, and how to enhance collaboration between artists and scientists. I’m being wheeled out as a scientist-turned-artist, I think, someone who combines and embodies both. We shall see. There’s a wine reception afterwards so I’ll be able to fortify myself if anyone heckles my credentials!

But the main objective of both events is to establish a network of interested parties in this area of arts and biomedical ethics which is absolutely my bag. As Henry Ford once said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.

So what with this, and various relevant performances in the assorted festivals to attend, and of course, THE Book Festival – here’s the famous tented village well under construction this week …BookfestfBook Festival venue under construction… August is promising to be a terrifically exciting month. Edinburgh is certainly the place to be.

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