Sunday, August 6, 2017

Edinburgh Fringe: 'The Nature of Forgetting' at the Pleasance Courtyard, 6th August 2017

The Nature of Forgetting reviewed by David James
Rating: 5 Stars

What is a man but his memories? Theatre Re's The Nature of Forgetting is a descent through a shattered mind, our hero clutching at his fading memories as they trickle like sand through his fingers. This is Tom (the excellent Guilliame Pigé), a middle-aged teacher suffering from early onset dementia. Once quick-witted, knowledgeable and charismatic, he's now dependant on his daughter Sophie (Louise Wilcox), who he cannot help but mistake for his (possibly) dead wife.

We open to Isabella helping Tom to get dressed before the arrival of family and friends. She repeatedly explains that he must put on the dark blue jacket on the end of the rail, and that there's a red tie in the pocket. but as he stands the words warp and change and, as he peruses the clothes in front of him, he tumbles down a rabbit hole of memories.

We experience his days as a boy in school, where the relationships that have anchored his life were formed. We see him play with his friends (Matthew Austin and Eygló Belafonte) He grows up and experiences the blossoming of love for his school sweetheart Sophie, who will later become his wife. From here we gradually climb up the ladder to the present, stopping off at graduation, weddings and the birth of a child. But there's something darker interspersed with these golden memories. Like a shard of ice, we repeatedly cut to a harshly lit argument inside a moving car, which terminates with an ominous squeal of brakes and car horns.

Storytelling is via intense and expert physical theatre combining elements of contemporary dance and mime and soundtracked by a powerful live score. The cast moving with clockwork precision as they perform what feels like memories of memories, as if the protagonist is doing his best to patch the gaps before the ragged remains completely disintegrate.

Watching a man dangling over a vast abyss of nothingness, frantically shoring up whatever memories he has left is, frankly, pretty freakin' terrifying. Slow mental collapse is right up there as far as existential fears go; the very core of who you are gradually hollowing out to leave a malfunctioning shell doing a confused, nonsensical impression of the person it once was *shiver*.

What makes The Nature of Forgetting especially horrifying is the sense that Tom knows something is wrong with him, but he cannot quite put his finger on what. There are repeated scenes in which the structure of his memory begins to collapse and he frantically tries to put it back together, as if playing a losing game of spinning plates. The programme explains that the piece was developed in collaboration with a UCL neuroscientist and ideas were taken from interviews with dementia patients, and knowing that it's based on research makes The Nature of Forgetting more terrifying.

The show knocks its big themes out of the park - communicating the reality of dementia in a terrifyingly visceral way. But under these big ideas are a plethora of little moments that act as emotional punctuation marks. The tiny moment where Tom smells his future wife's hair, his best man losing the ring at the wedding for a moment, the way his teacher would lower his head to the desk as he moved past. It's a credit to the show that these important, smaller moments are comprehensible within big physical moments like the impressive bicycle sequence.

The action is fantastically soundtracked by Alex Judd's fantastic live score. There's a fascinating glitch audio effect when the memory begins to fall apart, as if a record is quietly skipping on a turntable. This is a score all about a tick-tock rhythm, repeatedly building to percussion and violin crescendoes as the action gets ever more intense before falling apart, sending Tom chronologically spinning through his life. The cast and musicians are talented enough that it never feels like the action is driving the music or vice versa, rather than they're in perfect equilibrium with one another.

This is an extraordinary production that knocks most of what I've seen at the Fringe this year into a cocked hat. I reviewed Theatre Re's last show, Blind Man's Song, last year, and enjoyed it without being fully convinced. Now I am. The Nature of Forgetting isn't exactly super happy fun times, but it is goddamn amazing.

The Nature of Forgetting is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh Aug 6-13, 15-27. Tickets here.

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