BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

19/11/2019 - 23/11/2019

Production Details

Here’s a play that talks about death and dying, as characters grapple with the pros and cons of euthanasia and the issues raised by the Euthanasia Bill

Welcome to the Death Café

Who wants to talk about death and the process of dying? Lots of people actually.

“Of course I don’t know what my end’s going to be like, and how I’ll handle it. None of us can know that until it happens. I want to farewell my family properly with love, and with my dignity intact. I want to go gently into that good night. When it comes down to it, don’t we all want a good death?”

Jan Bolwell’s new play Welcome to the Death Café is set in Masterton at a death cafe meeting. Strangers gather to to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death, in this case euthanasia. (It is the topic du jour as the Euthanasia Bill makes its way this year through the New Zealand parliament).

As the play unfolds we meet people who have been traumatised by family deaths, or who hold strong religious views about euthanasia, or have come to the death cafe meeting with their own very personal agendas. Throw in some song and dance as one of the characters tries to write a musical about death, and you have an hour of entertaining, thought provoking and very topical theatre.

BATS Theatre, The Heyday Dome
19 – 23 November 2019
at 6:30pm
Full Price $20 
Concession Price $15
Group 6+ $15 

*Access to The Heyday Dome is via stairs, so please contact the BATS Box Office at least 24 hours in advance if you have accessibility requirements so that appropriate arrangements can be made. Read more about accessibility at BATS.

Handstand Productions, a theatre company created by Jan Bolwell, has been devising and touring theatre works around New Zealand for the past 20 years. The works have been created by Bolwell – three solo shows about her family, and three multicast plays dealing with historical figures, such as Frances Hodgkins, Lucia Joyce and Freda du Faur. She has worked with talented dramaturgs and directors and designers who have helped her bring these works to the stage. Ralph McAllister, Kerryn Palmer, Annie Ruth, Lisa Maule and Nicole Cosgrove, among them; and actors such as Perry Piercy, John Wraight, Emily Regtien, Isobel McKinnon, John Smythe and dancer and choreographer, Sacha Copland. 

Theatre ,

Leaves us with plenty to think about

Review by John Smythe 20th Nov 2019

“I have tried not to write a polemical play that pushes a particular point of view,” playwright and director Jan Bolwell writes in her programme note. But although Welcome to the Death Café does articulate all sides of the argument, it is polemical according to the NZ Oxford Dictionary definition: involving controversial dispute. And by the end of the play it’s hard to see how anyone could sustain support for the inhumanity inherent in the law as it stands.

To kick things off, an upbeat tone is set with a full cast rendition of a Mexican Day of the Dead (Día De Los Muertos) song and dance.  

The people Bolwell brings to a church hall meeting in Masterton have very different backgrounds and reasons to attend, and as their understandings and awareness change ‘over several months’, so may some of ours too over the 65 minutes. Given the slow reveals of more than initially meets the eye with most of the characters, I can’t give too much away here.

Despite her husband’s distaste for her apparent obsession with death, Josie (Julie Edwards) – who saw her mother through to a painful end – has set up the ‘Death Café’ gatherings with no preconceptions about where it will lead. But parliament’s very recent passing of the End of Life Choice Bill, subject to a referendum in the next election, clearly makes discussing it all very pertinent.

No-nonsense Science teacher Josie’s commitment to open-endedness is tested by the enthusiastic Stephanie (Bee Lee-Smith), who keeps gathering ideas for the musical she wants them to do about death. Wellington theatre precedents, like Paul Jenden’s C – A Musical (2013), are amusingly cited (although Jo Randerson’s 2009 play Good Night – The End is not).  Apt poetic quotes are also offered and attributed throughout.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions about where Joan (Vivien Bell), a committed Catholic Christian, stands on the euthanasia question – but a very personal experience, not to mention her neighbour’s situation, gives her an individual perspective. She compares her church’s All Souls Day to Día De Los Muertos.

The Māori perspective, or rather the point that there is no pan-Māori position on euthanasia while there can be a range of approaches to tangi, comes with Hemi (James Forster), who is a bit of an enigma until we discover he has come to the café in search of redemption.

But the person with the most urgent need to confront her mortality and claim agency in the way it plays out is Geraldine (Annie Ruth), a retired nurse – and a special, though necessarily clandestine, relationship has developed between her and Josie.

Another song-and-dance break comes with ‘What You Gonna Do When Death Comes A-Creepin’ – given more of its original Negro spiritual feel than the Bob Dylan version. I feel it goes on a bit long, maybe because they do it to a recording that dictates the length. Perhaps the audience interaction they attempt could be reworked to make more genuine connections. A later break out of ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’, led by Stephanie, is a little more successful, not least because of Hemi’s flossing and crumping.

The idea of using role-play to explore their relationships with Death is subverted by Stephanie’s bringing scripts to a meeting. For me credibility gets a bit stretched in the way they attempt to play it out, not least because suddenly Stephanie has recourse to a dynamic lighting design (by Janis Cheng) that she can activate with snaps of her fingers. There is good comedy waiting to fly in this scene but it needs work.

Important points on questions of faith and politics are articulated as the meetings continue – well staged to avoid it feeling like a talk-fest. The characters and their relationships with each other develop well, with Annie Ruth’s Geraldine commanding our empathy especially.

As for the ending – what a shock! Suffice to say there is a sting in the tail that brings the focus clearly on to where we are with the law as it stands. The question of ‘evidence’ to support what is going to happen beyond the play’s end does get a bit fudged, I feel, and ending with ‘Que Sera Sera’ feels a bit naff to me (I guess because I have always found the song trite). But we are certainly left with plenty to think about, which of course is the purpose of the play. Anyone of voting age should avail themselves of this chance.  


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