Light and time are interwoven scientifically, linguistically and artistically: time is measured using the speed of light; memories fade, the past is dim and distant, a sudden recall is a flashback; and the convention of theatre lighting design dictates fades in light and changes in colour to denote the passing of time.
Lighting designer Itai Erdal is well set, then, to pull together all three strands in How to Disappear Completely, an autobiographical solo piece about his mother. In 2000 she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with an estimated nine months to live; despite intensive chemotherapy, cancer spread to her stomach, spine and brain, leaving her incredibly frail. Throughout, Erdal filmed conversations with his mother and her partner, his sister and his best friend with the hope of making a documentary.
How to Disappear Completely combines extracts from this footage with an autobiography-come-crash course on lighting design, Erdal’s persona shifting throughout between three modes of ‘explicitly not a performer but a lighting designer’, a documentary maker, and our host for the evening. Long segments are spent downplaying performative expectations in lecture-like style as Erdal runs through the basics of lighting design; by the time he explains how the changing warmth from a parcan as you dim from 100% intensity to 50%, 30%, 10% and then down in percentage points can affect your emotional response to a narrative, we are both complicit in Erdal’s manipulation of our mood and blindsided by its obviousness, the eventual impact of his mother’s story all the more powerful for the unlikeliness of this show as a vehicle to portray it.
About three quarters of the way through comes a filmed conversation between Erdal and his mother in which he offers to help her to die. They had discussed assisted dying in previous clips and concluded that while his mother might want to end her life, they did not have the means; but by the time of this last interview, something’s changed and they do – and so Erdal, we’re led to believe, helps his mother to commit suicide. It’s a grotesquely voyeuristic moment – by the time the film was made Erdal’s mother was incredibly ill, bed bound and barely able to express emotion; she appears to consent to Erdal’s idea, but how he can be certain (or certain enough) and exactly what’s changed in order to make his mother’s assisted suicide possible (i.e. whether there’s been a medical or moral change in circumstances) is far from clear.
Erdal avoids explicit moral discussion of this decision, yet unsurprisingly it’s the moment that lingers longest. His presentation of it as one incident in one of the show’s various strands serves to force a wedge between time (that is, the narrative unfolding of the show’s events) and free will, or the act as a decision of the performer. Henri Bergson, arguing against the Kantian view of free will as existing outside time and space, said that Kant mistook time for space and representation-in-time – that is, for Bergson, that time is immobile, incomplete and unmeasureable, and thus that determinism is fundamentally impossible and free will is the movement between points in time. Bergson sets this approach against memory (he imagines time as two concurrent spools, one unravelling and representing our consciousness of ageing and the other reeling in to represent our memory of events lived, or consciousness itself) and against emotion, which he regards as an infinite and immobile strand which we are forced to divide up into concepts, for the sake of language or expression, that are inherently unrepresentative of the thing we’re trying to describe.
The same is true for How to Disappear Completely – the performance is the playing out of two concurrent reels, one the lived memory of Erdal’s mother’s life, the other the immediate narrative of the performance, whose intersections are the point of questioning emotion and moral responsibility. Erdal creates a sort of theatrical double-time allowing the factual and emotional elements of the narrative to unfold separately, while also openly aware of the inadequacy of either medium (film or performance) as a reflection of the experience as a whole. And by keeping his persona somewhere between the two, Erdal is able – for the duration of the show – to detach himself from the emotion or complicity in the events he is describing (or his sharing of the footage with 50 strangers a night for professional gain) – he disappears completely. Performance becomes a walkway between the reels of consciousness and memory; and lighting (linking the two but inherently transitory) a vehicle for control.
At times, How to Disappear Completely feels like being shown a friend of a friend’s morbid home videos and listening to his middle-aged fears, intercut with futile attempts to steer him onto another subject (his career or a holiday with his best friend) and unsure of the extent to which this whole painfully honest exhibition is effectively a grieving process. It’s an oppressively introspective evening, lacking a sense of distance between performance and memory recalled (that, for example, Rebecca Peyton achieves in Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister) which might allow total strangers something more of a route in. But the approach is morbidly fascinating, and the formal playfulness (which earned Erdal a Total Theatre Award nomination for Innovation, Experimentation and Playing with Form at the Edinburgh Fringe) is provocative and exciting. Erdal might benefit from finding a way to give his audience a clearer route into his material; but if he does – whether on a future version of this show or something different – his experimentations could yet yield something special.