There’s a bedsheet hanging over the set of Glee & Me. It’s bigger than any bedsheet should need to be. It’s bright yellow, and uneven, shaped like a ragged pimple, an intrusion into the air above the playing space. It doesn’t move but it looks soft; the effect of gravity on the fabric has it hanging in folds, runnels. It glows from the inside. It looks like it wants to fall. Throughout the show, I picture it detaching from its fastenings, to drift down like a loosed spiders’ web, swallowing the stage beneath. It’s big enough to do that. There are pillows and a duvet on the stage below. On one side they are the same bright yellow as the sheet above, but when flipped over they are a bright rhubarb pink. I believe that the sheet is bound to fall at some point. And when it does I imagine it will reveal itself to be pink, too. Everything obliviated and swaddled in pink.
Glee & Me is a show about a child dying. Lola is sixteen when she is diagnosed with a brain tumour which is going to kill her. Glee & Me could easily be a show about suffering, it could easily be a show which jabs us with a stick as we watch, watch the cruelty of illness and the indignity of Lola’s decline. But who’d want to watch that and so of course this is a play about life and squeezing every last drop out of the time Lola is given. Death isn’t fair. Lola is fucking sixteen, and knowing she is going to die is depressing, but it’s also a pain in the arse. Having a brick wall put in front of her before she can reach the age of eighteen is frustrating; she breaks down. Then she decides she might as well try to figure out the meaning of life and have enough sex to make up a lifetime’s worth.
The brick wall stays. Lola gets a boyfriend, fights with her mum, becomes a vlogging star. And we know she’s going to die. We know where all this is heading. I don’t watch a play to find out what the plot is, though. I watch a play because there’s something worth experiencing in the journey from start to finish. I watch a play to piggyback on the audience and performers’ capacity for empathy – or something. To experience frustration, fear and grief in a place where I can put them back down and go home again. I’m here practising feeling.
When Lola loses her ability to speak I believe Liv Hill has forgotten her lines. I watch her struggling for words and repeating herself and I feel the vacuum inside her. Theatre can incorporate that trick – the moment of your gut falling away – the realisation that things are not going to plan and something is about to drop, disintegrate. In that moment, I am not feeling for Lola. I’m feeling for Liv and her performance, I’m feeling for the rest of the audience sharing this moment with me. Painful as it is, the gut twist of dread binds me to those around me.
The bedsheet is a metaphor. It was always a metaphor but now it is my metaphor. Theatre, live performance, is playing with empty air. The elements in front of us could fall apart at any moment because it’s all still happening. As an audience, our collective will helps hold it together. It’s one of the reasons I think of theatre as a tool for democracy. We are here because of each other. Under Covid, the air between us has taken on new meanings but it still means the old things. That air is still a medium through which we can connect, it is still filled with out differences but this evening we share it for the same reasons. We’ve not come here to learn the plot. We’re here to experience a story about something awful. To realise that there’s always something awful, but there are also the moments before, and after, in which we live our lives and become ourselves.
The bedsheet doesn’t fall. I see the shape of it and I don’t know exactly what the shape means or what lies behind it. I imagine it falling. I know that it always could. And it doesn’t.
Glee & Me runs at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 30th October. More info here.