I don’t know how to begin talking about this production, so I’m just going to start somewhere and hope it all makes sense. I believe there are two constants in life – birth and death. They aren’t necessarily always in that order, and there mightn’t be all that much time between them, but on average, there is about seventy-odd years between the two events, seventy-odd years to grow and love and feel and hurt and laugh and cry and reach out to other people and try and make it the best you can. What Campion Decent achieves in his Unholy Ghosts is something like a reflection or a meditation upon a life-lived, a grand statement upon the resolution of two lives well-lived to the fullest, to see what lies beneath and what we can glean from surviving the passing of our parents.
Presented by White Box Theatre and Griffin Independent, Unholy Ghosts is mostly told through scenes featuring the son and one of either parent, and direct-audience address. It is a namless family – the characters are known and referred to as simply Mother, Father, Son, and Daughter (though she does not make an appearance in the story.) Obviously autobiographical to a degree, we’re not quite sure of what’s real and what isn’t; perhaps ‘creative autobiography’ is a useful term here, seeing as – in Decent’s own words – it was “written from a space of grief in an attempt to honour yet complicate the past.”
Set on Martin Kinnane’s plush red-carpeted set – two steps leading to an opened travelling case, spread like an actor’s dressing room – it is at once overtly theatrical and intimately personal. In keeping with this style, there are many meta-theatrical nods in Decent’s play, which unfolds in a fluid and mercurial style; like Joan, Again, these allusions do not weaken the play but serve to make it stronger, better; richer. The Mother, a former actress renowned for her Ophelia and Puck, seems more like Amanda in The Glass Menagerie or Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. The Father, a travelling salesman and begrudging cantankerous man, seems perhaps most like
or Lear, or
Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, while the Son is a stage
manager-cum-guide-cum-unreliable narrator in the style of Prospero, or Tom from
Anna Volska as the Mother is a woman who, despite her prognosis, is still in possession of all her faculties and who is as sharp as a tack, not afraid of giving hell, causing mischief and having her way. Volska plays her with visible relish, and brings a quiet dignity and poignancy to her character’s final moments, as well as a young-spirited playfulness in the concluding scene. Robert Alexander as the Father is a bit of an old bastard who, despite his bluster and tendencies to berate, irritate, infuriate, denigrate and humiliate, is rendered in his final moments to that seventh and final stage that Shakespeare hauntingly describes – a “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste; sans everything.” Like Volska, there’s a relish in Alexander’s performance and we see the Father not so much as a caricature or abstraction, but as a person in all his faults and weaknesses. James Lugton as the Son, a (gay) playwright, is humble, an Everyman figure, both narrator, stage-manager and audience by turn, and there’s a kind of charm to his performance, his mercurial dance between being a part of and outside of the action almost in the same heartbeat. A charm that, despite all his claims of embellishment and unreliable narration (and perhaps, reenactment, or even pre-enactment), ensures we still want to believe him.
A cousin to Michael Gow’s Once In Royal David’s City earlier in the year, Unholy Ghosts is a haunting and moving examination of memory and family, of the ways we act around and speak to each other, at the way we deal with imminent tragedy, and the ways in which we carry on in the face of it all. Directed by Kim Hardwick, Unholy Ghosts is not forced nor overplayed, but finds a grace and humanity in its theatrical origins and forebears, in its allusions and unique voice. An emotional knife in the heart, it takes us to the edge of the abyss, dares us to stare it in the face, and then to journey back from it, stronger and wiser. It gets under your skin, affects you without you realising it, until you’re sobbing in the dark and trying to breathe, laughing amongst (and despite) the tears streaming freely down your face.
Proving once again that, amongst death, we can only find Life.