Be Prepared offers itself to us not as a play, but as a Quaker funeral service. The programmes on our seats announce that we are gathered to bid farewell to Mathew Chambers, and the proceedings will take the form of a Quaker Meeting Of Worship – a silence that may be broken by anyone who feels called on to speak. It’s a rather beautiful and understated way to frame a play about bereavement.
And at the play’s appointed start time, someone comes onstage, and speaks: a man who never met the deceased, but felt compelled to come to this funeral, and is going to tell us why. But he doesn’t just stand up in his seat – he runs onstage, sweaty and energetic, and begins talking at a hundred words a minute, and he doesn’t leave the stage until the festival-standard hour-long running time has elapsed. For a set-up that promises silence, we get an awful lot of talking.
The monologue threads together three strands. First, there is this character’s memory of his own father’s death, and his paralysing grief. Then, the story of how this grief was interrupted by an old man who kept accidentally calling him asking for a funeral director, never understanding that he had dialled a wrong number and endlessly pouring out his memories and stories into the wrong ears. And, threaded between these, not always clearly, are recollections from the protagonist’s time in the boy scouts, whose motto “Be Prepared” hangs over the play as a mocking reminder that death is the thing we can never be prepared for.
Ian Bonar, writing and performing, is an engaging, energetic presence on stage, holding the audience’s attention with his big sad eyes, his body quivering with tension and dripping with sweat. It’s a shame the writing doesn’t always have the clarity his performance does: in some sections, the vivid description can overwhelm any sense of where we are, and why this man is telling us this particular story now.
Implicit in the twin stories of grieving for a father and for a stranger is an interesting counterpoint of the way we struggle to grieve for those closest to us, versus how we are affected by the deaths of those our lives just brush past. But as the three interlocking threads of the monologue spill into each other, it’s easy to lose our grip on what holds them together. Later, big dramatic lighting changes and droning sound effects add to the confusion, and take us out of the calm, reflective space of the Meeting Of Worship, which the play initially worked so hard to establish.
There are some beautiful passages, and the whole thing is held together by a skilled, touching performance from Ian Bonar. But with all it’s frantic energy, this is a play that could benefit from what the Quaker ceremony offers: a silence, in which to speak clearly.
Be Prepared is at VAULT Festival until February 11th. For more details, click here.