at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
A better name for Nick Payne’s new solo show might be The Art of Lying. Throughout the monologue, the three stories Payne tells consider the various ways we lie to one another as life comes to an end. It’s a short, simple piece, and though it doesn’t contain the complexity of some of his earlier work, Payne delivers three affecting and heartfelt stories about the fraught relationship between death and truth.
Sat on a yellow plastic chair in front of a makeshift skyline of blue-lit medicine bottles, Payne begins the piece with the story of Maggie Noonan from Milton Keynes, who contracts a degenerative disease which forces her to split up with her partner and move into a home. The following thirty-odd minutes under Michael Longhurst’s detailed direction then oscillate between Payne’s own story about his dying father Clive and the tale of physicist Richard Feynman’s relationship with his young wife Arline Greenbaum, who suffered from tuberculosis and died when Feynman was only twenty-seven.
All these stories have one thing in common (aside from the thematic link of death, obviously); in each, the people around the person whose light is about to be extinguished tell themselves and each other stories and lies about the reality of the situation (including, come to think of it, euphemisms like “person whose light is about to be extinguished” which allow us to take a step back from reality). Payne thus tells his father that he’ll be fine on the day before he dies, and Feynman writes a letter to his dead wife as if she were still alive.
This letter brings the most touching moment of the piece, as we hear the prose he wrote to his wife after her death. It’s a beautifully touching piece of writing, and in admitting that his “stubborn and realistic” self has been defeated by her absence, the physicist shows how the pain of death can make us seemingly lose ourselves.
All these intricately crafted stories and false narratives thus make theatre the perfect setting for Payne’s monologue, calling into question the very act of storytelling itself. And though the decision to deliver this piece himself initially seems like a semi-arbitrary one, it soon makes sense as the verisimilitude of events comes into doubt more when the writer himself says these lines. If he’s lying to himself and his family about his father’s death, is he lying to us about other things?
The Art of Dying is a quiet, contemplative work which never overreaches itself or overstays its welcome. As we return to Maggie and her decision to end her own life in the show’s closing moments, it also ends up forming a glorious poem in defence of the human ability to cope. No more and no less. Simply coping.