Finnish playwright Kaisa Lundan found out her father had a terminal illness at the age of thirteen. That experience is the source material for her latest play, and she says that writing it has helped her to better understand the personal trauma she went through. She offers the play now to anyone who might similarly be “in need of reconciliation.”
It is interesting, then, that the terminally ill person at the centre of her drama All the Lights Are On is not a father figure, but a young woman. Perhaps casting the main character as someone closer to herself has allowed the writer to channel the incredibly challenging parallel experience of caring for someone who is fatally ill.
Emmy has brain cancer. It degrades her physically and, increasingly, mentally as the illness itself and the medication she uses to try and control her decline take their toll. But it is those closest to her that we see suffering the most. The play begins with Emmy calling out to her loved ones in a frequent moment of acute distress. Mother, husband, and godfather all rush to her aid time and again, fighting to keep her happy and pain free. They endure her outbursts and rejections, all the time compromising their own lives to find short-term solutions, or even to resist the inevitable.
Although the play does spotlight what these relatives are going through, it is nevertheless difficult to emphasise with them. The play is intentionally vague about who they are, and what they want aside from a miraculous recovery of their beloved Emmy.
The written text of the play refers to three different versions of Emmy at various stages of her decline, suggesting that the play might operate on different imaginative planes. One of these Emmy avatars is called Emmy Out-of-Time – presumably not just Emmy Nearing-The-End, but also Emmy Lost-her-Rhythm, or even Syncopated-Emmy. This structure implies that the production might not be traditionally staged. But it is. From prop birthday cake, to white-coated doctors, the production fails to engage with the atmosphere of disorientation suggested by the text, or the ruptured dynamics of a broken family.
The Anatomy Lecture Theatre at Summerhall might have been a particularly resonant space to present this new play, the psychogeography of the room lending another dimension to the story of a family being dissected by premature grief. But here, the frequently expositional dialogue makes for a production that’s often drawn into melodramatic outbursts, and labours through some particularly mundane passages. Ultimately, its depiction of illness on stage is all too familiar, and fails to get under the skin, relying too heavily on the sheer emotional weight of the subject matter.
All The Lights Are On is on at Summerhall until 26 August 2018. Click here for more information.