A woman emerges between flashes of light, like we’re seeing her through the spinning cylinder of a zoetrope in a museum. Seems appropriate for a ghost story. Something static brought to life. An illusion, animated by our belief.
Alice looks down at her corpse and calmly lists the pieces she can see: Flank, thigh and back. Like a butcher surveying a piece of meat. This must be a coping mechanism. If I was a ghost I’d be distraught, wailing hauntingly, spraying ectoplasm generously. But Alice doesn’t seem too bothered. She’s light, humorous. Quite funny actually. She has a way of constructing an idea and then undercutting it with a quickfire deadpan punchline. Usually a cultural reference. She seems like a mate you could have a laugh with, but not one you could expect to really give a shit about you. She’s unfazed by the sight of her grieving parents, distracted instead by the opportunity to check out her vagina from the same angle her sexual partners must have had. I wonder if she was this unfeeling when she was alive, if she always saw herself this way. A carcass in the mirror. Flank, thigh and back.
Dust is a monologue written and performed by Milly Thomas. It explores how we dehumanise ourselves, and how we find humanity in others.
Alice committed suicide. Now she’s forced to witness the aftermath. Occasionally she impersonates people who are still alive. People who played an important part in her life, like Isabel. Isabel is introduced to us as Alice’s sexist, racist, classist aunt. She’s a middle-class monster. One of those characters that performers of one person shows must love, allowing them to step momentarily into an exaggerated viewpoint and wring it for all it’s worth. And, of course, she says awful things (things that make you awful by saying them). But while we hear her say these things, we watch her breathe; we see her emotions overcome her, how she has to pause and compose herself. We even see her eyes shine, with something that must be sincere love. Somehow, against all odds, she emerges not as a monster but as a human being. It seems impossible, but then we’re not seeing Isabel as she really is. We’re seeing her as Alice portrays her. Cynical Alice, insensitive Alice, flippant Alice, she finds a way to humanise her aunt between the words she speaks. Alice, for whom the world was unliveable, is unable to depict her aunt as a completely lost cause.
Alice is not an unreliable narrator, but it is this rippling dissonance between text and performance, between what is said and what is felt, that exposes a little of what it is to see the world clearly and yet know that you are truly alone in it. As a ghost, all Alice can do is watch people who are alive. She can imitate them, understand them, empathise with them. But she cannot communicate with them, cannot convey even a little of how she really feels. At the moment of death, she finds a little clarity: All I really wanted to say is that I can’t talk to anyone. I’m so very frightened of everyone. Because they’re healthy. Because they’re happy. As a ghost, Alice experiences how it always felt to be alive.
Structurally, the play seems to propose an inevitability to Alice’s suicide. The last line echoes the first, which creates a cyclical sequence of events beginning and ending in death. And when Alice remembers and revisits moments from her life, it is with a mortuary table standing in for all furniture, so that when she lays in bed we cannot help but see a corpse prepped for autopsy. Yet Thomas’s performance is so full of life, and her script so full of well-observed little human idiosyncrasies, that I want to feel hope, not grim certainty.
After the curtain call, Thomas takes the opportunity to speak to us directly. This feels as important a part of the play as anything that has come before. Because the illusion is over, the zoetrope has stopped spinning, and yet the woman is still animated, still alive, asking us to talk to each other, because it’s not too late.
Dust is on until 17 March 2018 at the Soho Theatre. Click here for more details.