Demented by Ruth Pieloor.
Directed by Ali Clinch. Puppet designer Hilary Talbot. Puppetry director Ruth Pieloor. Clowning coach. Robin Davidson Set Designer and stage manager Mel Davies. Lighting designer Jacob Aquilina. Costume designerFiona Leach. Sound designer Damian Ashcroft. Q the Locals Season. Q Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing Arts centre. August 18 – 20 2022.
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
In 2021, it was estimated that there were between 386,200 (AIHW estimate) and 472,000 Australians living with dementia (Dementia Australia).
This alarming statistic gives special significance to the importance of Ruth Pieloor’s play Demented, staged as part of the Q Theatre’s “Q the Locals” season. It is even more so when one imagines the number of families who must live with and care for loved ones like Maggie, (Chrissie Shaw) whose daughter Rachel (Heidi Silberrman ) has had to commit to a nursing home because she can no longer care for her mother while pursuing her teaching career and raising her own daughter Kat (Rachel Pengilly).
Pieloor’s own mother was diagnosed with dementia which gives the play a powerful personal tone. Director Ali Clinch has also experienced the loss of her father through dementia, so that the play reflects a highly compassionate regard for the sufferer and the families who must confront the fearful nature of this disease. Throughout the performance the audience becomes aware of Elizabeth Kulbler Ross’s Stages of Dying as applicable to the gradual progress of dementia. Short episodic scenes demonstrate the onset and advancement of dementia and Maggie’s response, unerringly truthfully performed by Shaw as Maggie slides irrevocably into the abyss that is the loss of memory. Denial, anger, bargaining,depression and acceptance are all evidenced in short scenes from Maggie’s refusal to go to a home, to her wilful obstinacy to her confusion and disorientation. The scenes are handled by director Clinch and the cast with sensitive delicacy and there exists a grim inevitability as Maggie’s daughter is also referred to a gerantologist. There is a natural dread that the condition of the parent could well be visited upon the child. This is not necessarily a rational impulse but it does highlight the helplessness and hopelessness that pervades this iniquitous affliction.
And yet while watching Pieloor’s drama unfold I am conflicted by the complexity of styles employed to tell this moving and at times disturbing story. There is a disjointedness to the use of naturalistic scenes, puppetry and clowning that heightens confusion and contradiction. Intellectually it is possible to rationalize the conflicting styles. The shifting reality reflects the confusion, anxiety and at times childish playfulness of the sufferer, but I found the clowning risking a trivialization, too often highlighted by the purposeful moving of Mel Davies’ set design of moving cupboards. Maggie’s former life as a trapeze artist lends credibility to the convention, but it disrupts the flow of the drama and tends to diminish the true impact of Maggie’s condition. An exception to this is the suitcase routine, where Rachel’s packing in preparation for a move to the nursing home is interrupted by Maggie’s unpacking. This is clowning that heightens empathy while evoking laughter.
Empathy is bathed in pathos in Pieloor’s use of puppetry to represent Maggie’s failing memory of her family.and in particular the female members who are singularly affected by the loss of a loved one to dementia. It is in Maggie’s condition, Rachel’s frustration, Kat’s growing awareness Rachel’s forgetfulness and the attention seeking tantrums of Kat’s own daughter Emily (Carolyn Eccles) that the mirror is held most clearly up to nature and the powerful and moving effect of Pieloor’s play is felt.
Demented is a new work by emerging playwright Pieloor that resonates with purpose and authenticity in the writing, the staging and direction and the performances of the four actors. If clowning is to be used, then it needs to be entirely pertinent to the purpose of the play which is to raise awareness, evoke compassion and broaden appreciation of dementia in society. The inclusion of Auslan interpreter Brett Olzen is indicative of Pieloor and Clinch’s intention to heighten social conscience and appreciation of the importance of inclusivity and a voice for all people who may experience dementia themselves or in society in general. Although I was concerned at the distraction and disjointedness I felt at the clowning scene changes and certain routines, that was obviousy not the concern of the woman who gave the show a standing ovation or the audience member behind me who laughed loudly at the clown routines.
At least we would both agree that Ruth Pieloor’s first full length play is an excellent choice for Q Theatre “Q the Locals” and an important commentary on the heartbreaking impact of dementia on the sufferer and loved ones alike.
Photos by Ben Appleton and Photox - Canberra Photography Services