Thursday, May 5, 2016

Alzheimer Symphony by Justus Neumann and Hanspeter Horner

Alzheimer Symphony by Justus Neumann and Hanspeter Horner.  Presented by Tasmania Performs supported by the Theatre Royal, Hobart.  Performed by Justus Neumann at The Street Theatre, Canberra, May 5-8, 2016.

Directed by Hanspeter Horner; designed by Greg Methe; original music by Julius Schwing; technical director – Wolfgang Kalal.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 5

In writing and performing Alzheimer Symphony, Justus Neumann and Hanspeter Horner have a purpose more related to be being of service in the community rather than competing in the commercial world of theatrical entertainment.  That does not mean that much of the ageing Ferdinand’s struggle with his developing dysfunctional memory is not entertaining, even often quite funny.  And his final stage of confusion and even death is certainly not presented as a tragedy.

The play is about recognition of what is a natural process and about non-judgemental acceptance of that reality by those of us who can ameliorate the effects, as friends and partners, and provide a sense of safety – of being at home – as carers.

On opening night in Canberra, Alzheimer’s Australia led an expert panel discussion with the audience for half an hour after the 75 minute show praising Neumann for demonstrating many aspects of behaviour seen in people suffering the problem, not merely of losing their memory but of being aware of the loss.  I think the essential point was about the fear people feel and how others can help maintain stability – the concept of home.

This was represented in the play by Ferdinand’s extraordinary wheelchair, with everything including the kitchen sink on board.  The core of the drama was a picture that was gradually revealed of Ferdinand’s past as an actor playing the role of King Lear.  Because he forgets his lines (and in that sense finds himself being like Lear rather than acting the role, forgetting his daughter Goneril’s name while remembering Cordelia and Regan), he has managed to put together a vast collection of household items, with tags numbered in the order of the words and phrases in his lines, which remind him mainly by the image, or sometimes by what he does with an object, of the words he needs.

In a tour de force, he finally succeeds through some 30 of these stimulating images to complete a short King Lear speech, beginning “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” (Act III, Sc II).  Later, though he cannot successfully repeat the act, he finds he is able to approach an off-stage beam of welcoming light with equanimity – with confidence that he can go with a sense of satisfaction.  We, watching (and caring) can see him go with pride in his achievement.

The Alzheimer Symphony title also refers to Neumann’s own background as an Austrian migrant to Australia: much of the accompanying music is by Schubert, while the thunder and lightning background which stirs Ferdinand’s King Lear memories sound awfully like the explosions of World War II.

This work is highly appropriate for presentation by The Street Theatre, now touring after its original presentation in Vienna and in translation  in Hobart.  For further information and assistance concerning dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, go to

for Alzheimer’s Australia website.

Justus Neumann in
Alzheimer Symphony