The problem with showing death in the theatre is that, put simply, its unshowable. Even dying, no matter how gruesome, is always ultimately unconvincing. The reason for this is that the living, breathing actor on stage, no matter how still he lies or how long he can hold his breath for, remains a presence, and death is always an absence.
Debbie Tucker Green's Generations is, in its brief 30 minutes, about the most simple and effective representation of absence imaginable, and hence rarely have I seen the spectre of death so hauntingly and powerfully shown in a theatre.
The audience is ushered from the packed bar at the Young Vic, all dim lights, trendy surfaces, trendier music and the lingering smell of overpriced food, into a brightly lit African Kitchen, surrounded on all sides by sand on which are scattered crates and plastic stools that the audience is guided to by a melee of characters, singing and dancing beating out an irresistable rhythm on the coloured walls. The vibrancy of this opening image, that had the audience beaming contentedly and clapping along, is carried over into the first scene in which the characters fluster round the kitchen, bickering, laughing and interupting one another. All this energy only serves to heighten the effect when the scene is cut short abruptly by the singers, still stood around the edge of the space, whose song ushers the youngest daughter out before exactly the same scene is begun again without her.
Suddenly there are pauses where there weren't before; her exclamations and bickering are painfully missed. Her absence tears a whole in the scene, where before there where ripples of laughter, suddenly the same lines are tempered with sadness and received in silence.
The same pattern is then continued with characters disapearing until only the grandparents are left in a kitchen (and a scene) that is now achingly empty.
One of the reasons the play works so effectively is because it is so beautifully, delicately constructed. Each of the almost verbatim repetitions are able to work as a scenes in their own right. The lines and characters that are missed each time sting the audience so hard because, despite the clever theatrical games, the action never fails to be utterly natural and utterly convincing.
And this is what truly blew me away. While I sit around like a rather self-important goon, worrying whether to try and create theatre that is political or naturalistic or experimental or entertaining (as if these elements are almost mutually exclusive), in 30 minutes Green creates a piece that beautifully and powerfully encompasses all four. At once a reminder of the extent and impact of the AIDS crisis in Africa, an intruiging experiment in theatrical form, a portrait of family life and an ingenious way of representating the unrepresentable - making absence so utterly present in the theatre - Generations is a thrilling way to spend half an hour.
Anyone reading this should most definitely head to the young vic website and get themselves a reduced-price online ticket. Oh, and by the by, much thanks to Ben - for to turning me on to it in the first place.