I spoke with two friends (separately) after Ghosts last night, and we had two very different (and very intense) discussions about the work. German theatre collective Markus&Markus, using Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (1881-1882) as a loose framework, had created a theatrical response to assisted suicide that was, at the same time, a biography of the late 81-year-old Margot, a warm, funny, confiding woman who chose to die on her own terms in 2014.
One of my friends appreciated the production a great deal, noting the meticulous attention to detail – Markus&Markus were careful to keep Margot the focus of their documentary film footage (she's always in the centre of the frame, everyone and everything else is peripheral), they never allowed audience members to wallow in the swelling strains of Dvorak's sentimental "New World" symphony (a soundtrack to many of the scenes), and interspersed challenging, emotional moments with other scenes of bizarre humour (the Grim Reaper makes an appearance and gives a PowerPoint presentation on a type of pentobarbital used in euthanasia; Markus&Markus dress up in sheets and dance to the theme of Ghostbusters). My friend was glad that Margot had the final say on what they could film of her and what she ruled out as private. Sure, the show was irreverent, even decidedly vulgar at turns, but always respectful of its portrayal of Margot. Everything felt careful and deliberate.
Another friend disagreed. How could they say that Margot "directed" the work? she argued. Markus&Markus did all the cuts. They had the final say. They represented Margot according to their own terms, not hers. She was further upset by Markus&Markus' decision to have a man with dementia be the protagonist of their upcoming (similarly documentary-type) work, Peer Gynt. How can someone who is not lucid give consent to be represented? she asked. Margot may have given full consent, but the discussion of dementia soured her initial acceptance of the ethics of their art-making.
I'm reminded of last week's Riding On A Cloud and its dissection of representation – different context, similar issue. What happens when you're an art-maker who wants to create a compelling, engaging piece of work about an important topic and you require (or perhaps desire) a non-performer to be himself/herself on stage? Are you a slave to the art, or the real-life person on which the art is based, especially when the person in question may not be able to give consent? (I don't have answers to that, so I went and bought Jay Koh's Art-Led Participative Processes: Dialogue & Subjectivity Within Performances In The Everyday.)
I, too, had strong and conflicting reactions to Ghosts. There were very few dry eyes in the audience. I've rarely seen death on stage so confrontational, so intimate, so full of sharp edges but as cozy and welcoming as Margot's little apartment. In their prologue, Markus&Markus make a mockery of death scenes from theatre, film and opera, from Romeo & Juliet ("O, happy dagger!"), to the final sorrow of Young Werther, to the character-slaughtering Game Of Thrones. Staging death will always be a parody because the actor always remains alive. Except in this case, of course, because Margot dies.
We've all experienced death in our own ways, but it's a rare thing to become acquainted with and deeply fond of a complete stranger and then watch her die by her own hand, calmly and at peace, about two hours later. The play, through Margot, brings up a lot of difficult debate on the ethics of euthanasia and, at the same time, the ethics of documenting someone's process as she prepares for euthanasia. It unfolds as a sort of parallel to the death taking place on stage; it is as pre-meditated and careful as it is messy and painful. "Blonde" Markus, who has been popping pills at regular, calculated intervals, goes on to down an entire bottle of what I'm assuming is sparkling wine, then forcefully throws it up all over the stage floor. It's a horrible, stomach-churning moment, an allusion to the sheer force of will it takes to kill one's self. Whether you die in your sleep, of a terminal illness, by your own hand, or in a terrible accident – death, whether voluntary or involuntary, is hardly ever dignified.
And all through the production I wondered, as I cried and cried: is Margot the exploited one, her final month laid bare in front of us, her confessions and her difficult medical history unveiled? Was it a "dignified" way to die, having us watch the exact moment she stops breathing? Or are we, the audience, the manipulated ones, prompted by the theatre-makers to follow a specific emotional arc, to argue, to cry?
Markus&Markus have watched Margot die at least 45 times now, inverting what we assume to be the 'traditional' process of grief: we mourn, we have a funeral, we cremate or bury, we do our best to move on. But death never leaves us. The show presents other cultures of grieving that embrace this loss, whether it's exhuming the remains each year and bringing them home as if they were whole, and real, or allowing the body to decompose at home (the deceased is simply ill until he/she begins to rot). And I appreciated that candour the show brought to the most shadowy, uncertain of things. Everyone has their own convictions, religious, moral or otherwise, as to how their life's conclusion ought to be written. Ghosts made us sit with it, look it in the eye, hold its hand. For that, I am grateful.