Stages of grief: how theatre is helping communities say goodbye

After lockdown made collective mourning impossible, two new productions are remembering lost loved ones – and making a case for theatre’s social use

One of the many things that lockdown deprived us of was a chance to properly mourn those we lost. For more than 15 months people have often been denied the opportunity to participate in the rituals of grief, as individuals and as communities. To grieve is a basic human need; not being able to do so inevitably takes a toll.

Theatre is starting to find ways to create a space for remembrance with new productions. One of these pieces is Final Farewell at Tara theatre in south London, which champions south Asian voices. After Abdul Shayek was appointed its artistic director last summer, his mother died and so he has been giving a lot of thought to “rituals of saying goodbye”.

Shayek put out an open call for people to share their stories of people they had recently lost and commissioned the writer Sudha Bhuchar to turn the resulting interviews into a series of monologues that could be performed by actors as part of an audio walking tour. The idea, he explains, is that audience members could “listen to the stories of these individuals, while also retracing journeys, or [visiting] places that may have had a connection to the person”. Not all of the stories concern someone who died from Covid-19; one of them addresses miscarriage, a kind of grief still not often shared in public.

Abdul Shayek.
‘Where do you find the joy?’ ... Abdul Shayek. Photograph: Tara Arts

The tour takes people around Wandsworth, including parks and a playground, before ending up back at the theatre where there will be “a moment for the audience to reflect on anyone they have lost”. Final Farewell is just telling six or seven stories, he says, but “there are thousands of other stories that haven’t been heard”.

Shayek kept asking himself: “Where do you find the joy?” Striking a balance between mourning and celebrating a life was one of the biggest challenges. There is a moment in the grieving process, he says, where you give yourself permission to say goodbye. “But you do that collectively, as a group of people, whether it’s friends and family, or the wider community coming together.”

Shayek believes that one of the most powerful things about theatre is that it allows you to walk in other people’s shoes. He hopes this show will allow people to do just that.

Pitlochry Festival theatre
Inspired by natural beauty ... Pitlochry Festival theatre Photograph: PR

Jo Clifford and Lesley Orr’s Requiem also takes the form of a walk. Part of the autumn season at Pitlochry Festival theatre in Perthshire, the promenade piece is intended to commemorate those who have died of Covid-19 and to help their families grieve.

Jo Clifford.
‘People’s stories should be told’ ... Jo Clifford. Photograph: Hannah Houston/Stonewall Scotland

Clifford has explored death and bereavement in her writing before – perhaps most explicitly in Every One, her version of Everyman. “I was just aware about how important it is, for people’s lives to be recognised, for their stories to be told,” she says. Elizabeth Newman, Pitlochry’s artistic director, suggested she collaborate with Orr. Both Clifford and Orr had experienced the loss of a partner – Orr’s husband died suddenly just before the pandemic.

For much of her life, Orr has been involved with the Iona Community, a radical Christian ecumenical community founded in the 1930s, that campaigns for social justice. So she already had experience of creating “meaningful and healing” ceremonies for people to mark these rites of passage in their lives.

The pair have taken inspiration from the natural beauty of Pitlochry’s surroundings. They are still working on the text when we speak – it is one of the first times they’ve been in the same room together – but they envisage a piece that is as ritualistic as it is theatrical. Requiem will also include an opportunity to read out the names of people who the audience themselves are mourning.

It is important, says Clifford “for people who have experienced trauma to express that rage, to protest”. There has to be a balance, she says, between offering comfort and allowing people to express their anger.

What’s important now, she says, is to address the state we’re in and “for theatre to make the case for itself as something socially useful”.


Natasha Tripney

The GuardianTramp

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