Where some peoples’ memories are like an orderly spreadsheet, I think of mine as more like an overstuffed holiday suitcase: pretty much everything I need is in there but I generally can’t get to it without significant rummaging, and small but vital bits periodically spill out and get crushed on life’s cosmic luggage carousel. So this review is an experiment in extracting and dusting off my memories of a show I saw a week ago. Can I remember what I had for lunch that day, or what I wore, or what I did at work? Ah ha no. But I can remember seeing After Life. Because the memory stores things in partial, biased ways. You’re more likely to remember something if it’s novel (new things stimulate your brain’s learning impulse), if it makes you focus, and if it makes a strong emotional impact – and all those factors are also a vital bit of encountering art. The most damning thing you can say about a show is that it’s ‘forgettable’, I think – maybe instead of star ratings, we should measure a performance’s success by whether the audience is still thinking about it a week later, with the highest awards reserved for shows that are remembered years or decades on.
Memory #1: A room lined with filing cabinets, their doors stretching up into the heavens.
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten I’m meant to be writing a review! And I also haven’t forgotten Bunny Christie’s set design. She creates a sterile beige space here, a kind of mid-century government office that a spirited Wes Anderson protagonist might quixotically flee from, but the surreal scale hints at a transcendental twist. These filing cabinets are full of memories belonging to the deceased, because this place is a limbo, a facility where the newly departed spend a week picking one single memory to spend all eternity dwelling in (see, you knew there’d be a connection). It’s a poignantly mundane place: I wonder why visions of the after life are so often bureaucratic, rather than ecstatic? I’m thinking of the highly-organised satanic minions in The Good Place or the civil servants of Beetlejuice – as loyal citizens of secular capitalocracies, we don’t know what comes after death but, much like a package holiday, we certainly want it to be very well-administered.
Memory #2: A shout of ‘clearance’
This production has that signature combination of slickness and self-awareness you’d expect from co-producers Headlong: as the audience slowly trickle in, the actors carefully remove neatly laid out shoes from the stage – each pair, we ultimately realise, signalling a life lost. Then, a shout of ‘clearance’ signals the show’s start. After Life is based on a 1998 Japanese film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, one described as a meditation on film-making – and writer Jack Thorne, designer Bunny Christie and director Jeremy Herrin have duly turned it into a meditation on theatre-making, by turns arch and profound, where the cast manouevre pieces of scenery that wittily announce days of the week in paper or petals, then settle down to the real work of making dreams.
Memory #3: A girl who wants to spend eternity on a rollercoaster
Imagine, just one long “aaaaaahhhhhhhhh” in an endless vacuum of time…. I’m scaring myself, but I love/feared this idea, by a teenage girl, who had a great time at Disneyland Paris with her best friend before her life ended prematurely. Unfortunately/happily, she’s steered away from this by Guide Four, played by Millicent Wong with an impulsiveness and vigour that beautifully cuts through this story’s measured pace. These guides are kind of like dramaturgs for dreams, gently nudging the deceased away from choices that are too bold (that rollercoaster) or thematically empty (a multicoloured beach), towards something that’s authentic – but inevitably, their own tastes can’t help but break through. There are three days for the deceased to make their choice, then only a few more for the team to use the machinery of theatre to make those memories real again: a schedule that makes that of your average Vault Festival work-in-progress look positively leisurely.
Memory #4: The struggle to define commonly used concepts like ‘happiness’ and ‘self’
As the organisation’s seasoned leader, Kevin McMonagle supplies some of the narrative’s most profound moments, explaining that people choose moments that feel the most like ‘them’ in distilled form – a serial killer chooses not the act of murder, but a moment where he’s swimming in the sea as a child, his actions always ahead of him. I love that this production wrestles so explicitly with abstract questions like: what makes ‘you’ you? Does the search for meaning end up erasing what actually matters? There’s something moving about the way a respectable older man (Togo Igawa)’s life suddenly seems thin as he searches it for moments of transcendence, what seemed like successful respectability disintegrating in his hands.
Memory #5: A gliding propeller plane; a blizzard of rose petals; a swatch of silk
When the guides start to recreate the memories, it’s magical. We see theatremakers as gods, capable of unleashing thunder and lightning, of dredging up lost faces from the past, of capturing a tiny moment (a park bench, a husband, a wife who doesn’t love him, an inedible pasta salad) and giving it an unbearable poignancy just through the sheer act of preserving and replicating it and sharing it.
What I don’t remember
Feeling a kind of yawning exciting horror of death, infinity, ideas of afterlife, etc… I expected this production to eat away at me a bit more (why do we go to the theatre). Instead, it provoked a more cerebral “hmmm how interesting” type response, the story’s more frightening ramifications muted and tidied away. It also felt a bit… puritanical, a bit straight-in-a-non-literal way. A lovely night at a dance hall. Lunch on a park bench. Are those really the moments we live for? The guides make slighting references to “perverts” who ask to spend eternity remembering sexy times they had, but I can’t see what’s so awful about searching for something transcendental.
I didn’t think about this until long after I left the theatre but: the concept of dwelling in a memory is kind of frightening too. The young girl who wanted the rollercoaster settles on spending eternity resting her head on her mother’s lap, blossom falling, but there’s a sense that this isn’t a deeply felt, embodied memory – it’s what she feels she should choose. And what she gets is a kind of ersatz version of that compromise, where the petals look synthetic and scentless, and her mother is an actor – an eternity of not-quite-right. You’d need such a herculean marshalling of memory to turn that artifice into something felt and real.
This play explores the way we invest emotions in the outline of a story and so bring it to life – so I guess it’s fitting that it requires a big investment of emotions from you, the audience, for it to work its magic. It doesn’t reach out, it waits for you.
Shows in the era of social-distancing feel so different. They’re sadly deprived of both the atmosphere, and the long after life they’d usually get: they’re seen by so few people, and in the case of the National Theatre, they’re sold out almost before the run begins, meaning you don’t get that buzz and word-of-mouth factor that makes theatre feel urgent, that sense of social media chat, telling your friends, poring over reviews.
I like to think of reviews as ephemeral, as a kind of solidifying of the conversation you might have after the performance, but social-distancing-era reviewing feels like something reflective rather than urgent. An excavation of your memories, and part of the long haunting that follows a production’s close. This review will be neatly filed away somewhere, no doubt, ready for an after life of its own.
After Life is on at National Theatre until 7th August 2021. More info and tickets here.