The grieving process is a personal thing, and as such, essentially beyond reproach. Inappropriate laughter at a funeral, sudden extremities of emotion triggered years after the event by apparently obscure confluences of objects or memories, bouts of depression, or extroversion, or promiscuity – they can all be parts of the process of working through and moving forward in a life which has lost an anchor. The death of a parent brings extra baggage with it, in its irresistible uncoupling of a half or a whole of childhood, and if we are to take Nick Payne’s latest short play on face value, it is itself a kind of outpouring of grief for its own author and performer. It establishes terms for the comprehension of the dying process, and then it comes to them.
So, ‘of Dying’, it gets a pass – Payne’s problem here is with ‘The Art’. Payne sits centre stage on a bright yellow chair, the back-wall a strip of pill boxes and pill bottles by Oliver Townsend, Damien Hirst ‘Pharmacy’-chic, and tells us about his father. There are recollections from childhood, from adolescence, from his father’s initial illness and through his decline and departure. But first he tells us a little about Maggie Noonan, a woman from Milton Keynes contemplating assisted suicide to free her from the muscular dystrophy that is shutting down her faculties and capabilities. And ever now and again a grisly hospital beep signifies a narrative track-change, and Payne regales us with the life of quantum physicist Richard Feynman, and his own loss of a loved one.
There’s a superficial resemblance to Payne’s excellent Constellations, a hint that, as in that earlier play, the abstruse and fantastical world of physics will provide a counterpoint or a pathway into a deeper understanding of the messy and lawless world of human happiness and suffering. No such luck. Instead Feynman is chosen because of a letter he wrote to his wife a year after her death (the theme of early Matthew Broderick anti-classic Infinity, tagline: ‘He Was No Ordinary Genius, Theirs Was No Ordinary Love’, which could almost be a line in this play), and perhaps the conflict he felt between his scientific rationalism and the movement of his love into the unknowable.
Both stories have been rendered in a language which oscillates between merely inconsequential and gruesomely mawkish and overwritten. It’s such ‘proper storytelling’, reaching so desperately for piquant imagery and Daniel Kitson-esque moments of quiet heroism that it rings repeatedly, squirmingly false. At times Payne’s language is so facetious it’s almost mirthy – Feynman’s visit to his dying wife’s bedside, for example: ‘When Richard Feynman reaches Albuquerque Hospital, he heads straight for his wife’s bedside.’
Well of course he does. Where else would he head? For a pee maybe? To buy a coffee-machine cup-a-soup? That is nonsense writing. Rhythm and style over sense and content. If Mills & Boon had a Palliative Care range, Payne’s Feynman rewrite would be a shoe-in.
Payne’s more personal story is also a victim of the writing process. There is enough apparently genuine emotion in the harshest sections, and Payne’s delivery sufficiently heartfelt to bring a few sniffles here and there in the Jerwood Upstairs, but as meat for a play, rather than a memorial recital, it’s pallid and everyday. And it leaves characters like poor old Maggie Noonan feeling like table-dressing, an invention to neuter claims of solipsism, at one point collecting conkers in an autumn park for no better reason than to provide a picturesque conclusion. Feynman may get a bit of a rough ride, but he at least has his biography to defend him – Maggie Noonan, with all the vulnerability of a fiction, gets properly shafted.
It’s not entirely without merit, there are flashes of the Payne who wrote one of the best love stories of the past decade, but compare this to Brokentalkers brutally sublime Have I No Mouth of last year – which made the experience of losing a parent seem searingly close, which brought death down to a level where it was no less terrible but was at least comprehensible, and The Art of Dying washes out and melts away.