Harriet Vickers on assisted dying in the theatre: A review of Bea

Harriet Vickers Assisted death is a very visible issue right now.  As parliaments struggle with the dilemma about whether or not to legalise helping someone to die, more and more individuals are stepping into the public spotlight to describe or explore the issue. Terry Pratchett, in his Dimbleby lecture, and John Zaritsky, with his film A right to die, have notably spoken out, and now Mick Gordon’s On Theatre company has attempted to add to the conversation, with its play Bea.

Bea is set entirely in the bedroom of its namesake and heroine. Pippa Nixon plays her, and despite frequently and enthusiastically bounding around the room and frenetically dancing, we come to understand this is only a portrayal of Bea’s personality. She’s actually confined to her bed, unable to make no more than small finger movements, and needing constant care.

We join Bea as her stern barrister mother Katherine, played by Paula Wilcox, is interviewing a care assistant. Step forward Ray, played by Al Weaver, a garrulous young man from Belfast. Bea insists her mother has hired him because “he has a nice bum.” However, her first task for him is to write to Katherine, explaining that she wants help to end her life. As the play unfolds, we watch Bea and Ray’s relationship develop, and her mother accepting her daughter’s wishes and administering an overdose.

However, despite such an emotional premise, the play’s dealing of it felt superficial. Part of this stemmed from medical ambiguity. According to a crew member, Bea’s character was built as having chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). But this is never explicitly revealed: all we know is that she suffers from vomiting, constant fatigue, sensitivity to light and (unfitting for CFS) fits. She takes morphine, has been confined to her bed for the last eight years and believes “I’m not going to get better.” With every instance of assisted death so sensitive to individual circumstances (including in terms of the law, with prosecution guidelines looking at personal details) the vagueness of Bea’s condition made it difficult to understand her views.

We also don’t have much opportunity to understand how Bea’s illness has changed her. Terry Pratchett has written and spoken movingly about the process of Alzheimer’s, explaining why at some point in the “slow-moving car crash” he may not want to go on. Bea tells us how much she used to love dancing, and her room hints at the lively student she used to be, but we get few other clues as to the progression of her condition and how she’d gone from someone who wants to live, to someone who doesn’t.

Another aspect which made her journey unbelievable was her changeable attitude. The animated portrayal of herself in her mind’s eye is often joyous, She plays a practical joke with her mother on Ray, she dances with him and Katherine to It’s raining men, acts out A streetcar named desire. However these are mixed with periods where she screams or breaks down in tears. Confusingly, after her death, she’s shown dancing to Madonna’s A ray of light. This was repeated in the first scene, questionably suggesting that the same elation she felt after death was similar to the elation she’d felt, albeit unable to physically express, in life. “I’m not going to have a boyfriend, children, house…the only thing I believe in is release,” is the explanation she gives Katherine for her wish. However her extremes of mood are at odds with her claim that she’s made a rational decision.

The play was promoted as tackling empathy: “an exploration of the expanse and limits of our capacity to understand one another.” The most interesting relationship here is between Bea and her mother, however Katherine’s character was underwritten at the expense of the charismatic joker Ray, with little time dedicated to showing her coming to terms with her daughter’s decision. When she’s forcing morphine and pills down Bea’s throat, after straightforwardly refusing to do so earlier, I had little inkling of why she’d had this turn-around.

Ray’s empathetic exploration looked at the boundary in professional care, focussing on whether or not he will agree to Bea’s request for him to sexually please her (he eventually does). However as he comes across as unprofessional, selfish, and distracted (he admits he’s attracted to Bea anyway; he lets her take an entire bottle of wine to drink whilst he’s blabbing on about his love for Chardonnay; he unblinkingly declares he has another job and leaves directly after Bea has a fit) this doesn’t come across as meaningful. The resulting cunnilingus scene is ridiculous and unnecessary, made even more ludicrous by the fact we’re told she needs a catheter.

Other questions such as patients being a burden were touched on, but never given enough time. Ultimately, I feel the play used Bea’s condition and death as a core, to build a lightweight piece of theatre that was superficially entertaining. On Theatre on assisted dying felt more exploitative than explorative, and, as a conversation-joiner, Bea has very little to say.

Bea is on at the Soho Theatre, London, until 8 January 2011.

Harriet Vickers is multimedia intern, BMJ.