Not much more than a year ago, I saw my grandmother for the last time. She had just settled into a nursing home and it was my first, slightly guilty visit in a long time. There was an edge of finality to things. She had left her home and looked lost here, needing a little jostling to recognise me and constant, reassuring reminders about where she was to keep herself at ease. She was still my bright, kind and brilliant Nana, but things were beginning to disconnect.
Anyone who has found themselves in conversation with someone in the early stages of dementia will recognise the looped conversations – my dad and I joked that we only needed about ten minutes material to fill an hour long visit with her. But asking a throwaway question about her work as a seamstress in the sixties seemed to light a match behind her eyes. Nana was suddenly able to ream off, with incredible detail, everything about her life as a dressmaker. Patterns she used, machine parts and rules and workmates and accidents and intricate stitches. What struck me about it wasn’t the detail of the memory but the joy of it: her eyes glittered and flashed, synapses firing all at once in a brain we’d thought was burning out. The thrill of accessing a treasure trove of memories was palpable. The woman who was frequently seized by the fear of waking up in a strange bed was home again.
As we belted up in the car on my way home, I made a resolute promise to ask her more about the past – unlock the wealth of stories that still lay buried in her mind, and watch her relive a few of those shining moments as a respite from the horribleness of growing old. When she died a few weeks later, I didn’t mourn the small, frightened woman who confided to me in the disabled toilets that it was ‘time for her to go’, but the memories.
I didn’t expect to be reminded of my Nana as I sat down to watch The Nature of Forgetting. Perhaps my persistently pessimistic sensibility, combined with the incorrigible grumpiness generated by travelling through Bank station in the middle of rush hour, left me expecting a morose tale of forgetting. Instead, The Nature of Forgetting is an explosive, joyous celebration of remembering. The play is a glimpse into the mind of Tom, an old man losing grip on his past. Guillaume Pigé is stunning in the role, embodying Tom from his sugary childhood days and beyond with compassion and physical grace. Yes, the story is not something we haven’t heard before – the sunny young boy, the beautiful girl, the wedding, the cold dark night in the car with eyes off the road for a split second… but it’s told with such warm heartedness and fluidity that it’s hard not to invest.
The music, composed by Alex Judd, starts out like the soundtrack to a Very Uplifting Lifetime Movie, all lilts and whirls of emotion, growing more and more interesting as the memories begin to falter, the gracious movement shudders to a halt. The entire thing, also directed by Pigé, is beautifully and playfully choreographed – conversations start to appear in the wrong place, memories that Tom could conjure like magic are suddenly out of reach. It’s probably the closest feeling I’ve ever gotten to experiencing the light and fire I watched in my Nana’s eyes that night, cruelly snuffed out so shortly after.
For anyone touched by the dignity-stripping horror of dementia, The Nature of Forgetting is a powerful celebration of a life lived, with a touch of heartbreak. As one would expect from a piece appearing in the London International Mime Festival, it is incredibly disciplined and beautiful in its physicality. And for a minute, I was brought back to that slightly disinfectant-smelling room in a nursing home in 2015, watching a memory, remembering remembering.
The Nature of Forgetting was on as part of the London International Mime Festival 2017. Click here for more details.