Beachy Head, the dramatic white headland of the South Downs, is one of the UK’s most notorious suicide spots. Every year a small number of people will choose to end their life there and it’s this, an attempt to explore this drive towards self-obliteration, which forms the subject matter of Analogue’s production, recast and revised since its appearance at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe.
Two filmmakers, Joe and Matt, in the process of gathering footage for a project on lighthouses, inadvertently capture the last moments of a young man’s life. He takes off his boots, throws them aside, and steps off the cliff edge.
As their shock gives way to fascination and curiosity, the two men find themselves becoming increasingly interested in this man’s story. They track down his widow, Amy, and with her permission they begin to make a film about his, Stephen’s, life, something she initially finds useful as a tool for helping her work through – and work out – her emotions.
The production hinges on the moral implications of their actions, or rather their inaction, as they fail to tell Amy about the existence of the footage of her husband’s death, something that becomes increasingly difficult to do as Joe in particular grows closer to the young woman.
The reasons for Stephen’s suicide remain opaque. He is glimpsed in flashback as an introverted and contemplative man, a writer of children’s stories, but he remains a flickering figure, half-hidden, a memory. The company never present a clear-cut reason for his actions, acknowledging in the process the difficulty of doing so, that certain things will always be unknowable.
Instead they turn the production in on itself, examining the very idea of making art about suicide and interrogating the film-maker’s (and indeed the theatre-maker’s) motivations in creating such a piece. The obvious reference point is Eric Steel’s documentary film The Bridge and this is cited by the company as such. It’s interesting to note that (according to Wikipedia that is) a film on Beachy Head suicides was commissioned by Channel 4 but never broadcast.
The production, a devised collaborative piece created by Dan Rebellato, Emma Jowett, Hannah Barker, Liam Jarvis and Lewis Hetherington, makes considerable use of video, live and pre-recorded. A screen at the back of the set is used for the projection of images – of the beckoning sky, of the cool tile of a mortuary; on the reverse of the screen is a mirror, which is used to shift the audience’s perspective and amplify the sense of aloneness as Amy lies in the bed she once shared with her husband. These multimedia elements are never jarring and are, for the most part, well integrated with the fabric of the production and the moment when the filmmakers’ desk, complete with editing equipment, is transformed into the cliff itself is a unifying and potent one.
The narrative is interspersed with scenes in which a pathologist (played by Sarah Belcher) describes her work, the autopsy process, the statistics surrounding suicide, with the necessary professional detachment. This sense of detachment seeps into the piece itself and Joe and Matt never really emerge as characters. Katie Lightfoot, as Amy, however, manages to convey a plausible mixture of shock and a dazed kind of calm at her character’s sudden bereavement while Dan Ford’s Stephen remains – perhaps inevitably – an enigma.
Beachy Head will be touring across the UK throughout February and March concluding at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 23-24 March 2011