Do Not Go Gentle brings dignity to death

I saw this wonderful play by Patricia Cornelius, currently on at Sydney Theatre Company, shortly after the news that 95-year-old Clare Nowland had died, a week after she was tasered by a cop at an aged care home in Cooma, New South Wales. As I sat in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, there were 471 active outbreaks of COVID in aged care homes across Australia. 

In this context, Cornelius’ play is a reminder of the preciousness of our elderly folk and a sharp rejoinder to their treatment in one of the richest countries in the world; an often poignant, often joyous portrayal of the final act of our lives. I left the theatre with renewed rage at the treatment of older people in capitalism and a profound sense of the capacity of ordinary people to live extraordinary lives. 

Its central conceit is to draw an analogy between our journey towards death and the second Antarctic expedition of the British explorer Robert F. Scott and his companions, which famously ended with the deaths of the entire party as they returned to base camp. The five central characters are simultaneously residents of an aged care home and the five explorers, pitted against the beautiful extremities of the tundra and the limitations of their resources. 

Having never read it, I wondered if this play would be like all those Shakespeare adaptations set in space or Nazi Germany that are just trying too hard. Thankfully, my fears were proved totally unfounded; both the writing and staging ensured that this conceit works on many levels. 

The mythology around Scott’s expedition is ubiquitous and this means that the movement towards its failure mirrors the inevitability of our travels towards death. There are no surprises in the outcomes for our diverse group of characters, allowing the play to focus on how we live in that remaining time, knowing that its end is in sight. 

The vast expanse of the Antarctic is terrifying, breathtakingly beautiful and unknown—a perfect metaphor for the final years of old age. Cornelius’ characterisation and plotting explores all these elements of that time with a deft touch. 

The intense relationships of very different characters sharing a perilous and often arduous experience is the centrepiece of the conceit. Cornelius frames the decline of the characters with extracts of Scott’s famous diary of the journey, foreshadowing each individual demise and creating a scaffold on which she skilfully builds her characters’ personalities, foibles, connections and conflicts. 

Within a few short scenes we quickly come to understand the diversity of the group and their individual ups and downs as they physically, psychologically and emotionally battle the brutality of the journey. This brings scenes of rage, despair, hilarity and joy in delicately constructed writing. 

Scott’s constant rallying of the team’s spirits and appeals to the vision of their mission produces moments of poetic awe at what life entails: “a glistening world without edges, a world that invites us to cross it”. 

These moments demonstrate the vitality of the characters even as they approach their ending. 

They are superbly punctuated with comedic and sobering reminders of the mundanities of surviving in close quarters and harsh conditions—characters compete to outdo each other as to the severity of their aches and pains, and the decline of various bits of their bodies. The still-fiery Evans declares: “I miss having a good shit”. 

The central characters are fleshed out extremely well. Wilson, ever the optimist that the explorers will successfully return to base camp, looks back at her life as a middle-class wife and mother initially with smug satisfaction, but increasingly comes to see its disappointments—the limitations imposed on her, especially her sexuality, as she became a woman. The rawness of the expedition brings her a renewed determination to capture the expressiveness of her youth through a gorgeously written love affair with the rather less daring Scott. Its abrupt conclusion forces us to confront society’s restrictive mores about the sexual desires of older people. 

Evans is every gloriously angry socialist you’ve ever met; the personification of the Dylan Thomas quote from which the title of the play is taken. He rebukes Bowers for her easy platitudes about meritocracy in a world that has oppressed and tried to batter him. It has been an admirable life of fighting for working people at every turn, and he is not done yet, even in the most difficult of circumstances. He rails at the indignities faced by the group and tries to rally them into action: “We don’t have to put up with it, not at this stage of our lives”. He is as passionate about justice and dignity as Wilson is about sex. 

The weaving of past lives, present deprivations and the defiant struggle to survive are a testament to the quality of the writing and the performances of an accomplished cast. The glimpses of past mistakes, such as Oates’ dismissal of his son’s post-Vietnam PTSD, and the haunting scenes of Bowers’ failure to remember her husband and children as early onset dementia envelop her, give us a play of immense depth and scope. 

Our connection to these characters grows even as we know they move to their inevitable deaths, each exit realised with the sort of dignity and compassion we need so much more of in this world. 

Do Not Go Gentle deserves wide acclaim and audiences that leave with a determination to fight for a world where our older people can live their lives to the fullest until their last breath. 

Do Not Go Gentle, written by Patricia Cornelius and directed by Paige Rattray, is on at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre until 17 June.

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