The Marlowe
Living life to the full

Living life to the full

Vamos Theatre’s new show Dead Good tells the story of a friendship between two men who are staring death in the face. Both Bob and Bernard have been told they are dying - but they are determined to live life to the full while they still can. Embarking on one last adventure, the two men discover that coming close to death actually makes life, love and friendship more precious. Ahead of the show's run in our Studio, the creatives and performers talk about tackling the subject of death, finding lightness in dark material and playing with people's perceptions with a mask.

Vamos Theatre has a strong reputation for tackling difficult subjects in drama and creating shows which audiences love. The Worcester-based company, which uses full masks to tell its stories without words, has turned the spotlight on dementia, the health service and post-traumatic stress in the past and artistic director Rachael Savage felt it was time to investigate our attitudes towards life and death.

“The main reason we are telling this story is to ask the question of how the dying teach us to live and how do we live fully?” she says. “I never thought I’d do a show about death because I’m terrified by it but it’s been really good for me to tackle this subject because I’ll talk about it now. And in all of the research I’ve laughed more than I’ve cried.”

The original inspiration for Dead Good came from an audience member who also happens to be a GP with a specialist interest in end of life care.

“She emailed me to say she had an idea for the next show and when I first met her I was thinking ‘death is the last thing I want to make a show about’,” admits Rachael. “But then I found out we were completely on the same page about encouraging people to talk about it, to plan for a good death, to ask if there is such a good thing as a ‘good death’, and getting families to find out each other’s wishes.”

As part of her 18 months of research, Rachael visited hospices where she talked to staff caring for patients and people with terminal diagnoses.

“At Mary Stevens Hospice in Stourbridge I met Dave, a patient living with prostate cancer. He told me about how being terminally ill had changed him, changed his relationships and changed his capacity to love. He’s just like a bottomless pit now in terms of his capacity to love.

“Then I went to St Richard’s Hospice in Worcester which has a Men’s Space Group and the men who attend it have the kind of friendships that you make when there’s nobody else who can really understand what you are going through. There I met two chaps called Nick and Pete and they are phenomenally good friends and that friendship is based on care and compassion for each other but also humour. They giggle and laugh and rib each other and take the mick all the time.”

Medical staff and patients helped Rachael develop the story to ensure it remained authentic.

“We’ve invited Pete and Nick into the rehearsal room and their double act has informed the friendship and the humour of the whole piece,” she says. “I’ve shared every script and rehearsal video with Nick and he’s fed back on them.

“The way in which we usually see death portrayed, whether on television or Hollywood, is often dramatised and what I’ve really tried to do is to tell it as accurately as possible. We want to demystify death and take the fear out of it. We’re a death-denying society and the show is trying to change that.”

Rachael is sure Dead Good will build on the success of previous productions including Finding Joy, A Brave Face, Nursing Lives and Much Ado About Wenlock.

“I think people expect to go away from one of our shows having laughed and cried and with something to think about,” she says. “I give people a voice who often don’t have one so our shows have to be about things that I am passionate about and that I want to make people think differently about.”

Rachael believes these messages reach the audience all the more effectively because the characters are masked.

“Full mask theatre draws people in. The actors have detailed scripts, objectives, the same things as other actors, but when there’s the full mask on top there is a real clarity of thought. We pull the audience in to us so that we are connecting with them intellectually because they’re working out what is going on and through that we also have a really close connection down to their heart where we can make them feel. What I hope is that the feeling then bounces back to the brain so we can make them think.

“My belief is that Dead Good is an important story to tell. I hope audiences will take away that life is precious and that their family and friends are precious. Love and laughter are wonderful things and, without making it into a cliché, to get out there and live life and learn what is important.”

The show is a co-production with Corn Exchange Newbury, a co-commission with London International Mime Festival and supported by the Leche Trust and Worcester County Council.

Taking the part of Bob is Aron De Casmaker. The Canadian clown performer has honed his skills in Cirque du Soleil’s Alegría and Slava’s Snow Show as well as performing with Vamos in the past.

“Bob is one of the two men who go on this great adventure soon after they both find out they are terminally ill,” explains Aron. “Bob is somebody who has had a very simple and joyful trip through life until more recently when he has been diagnosed with cancer of the prostate.

“That really put him into a position of questioning his existence so he moved from being with his wife and being a retired auto-mechanic to deciding he’s going to die and he will do it alone. He left his wife to seek solitude and then he meets this other man Bernard who doesn’t let him have that solitude and forces him to find joy in these fleeting moments.

“I’m really excited about this project. The idea of finding the lightness in dark material really attracts me to the theatre and in this show we are hitting a very realistic view of death head on and then finding the joy and the lightness that comes from that. We want the audience to come out with an extreme sense of elation and joy which will resonate far beyond the walls of the theatre.”

Aron says masked acting helps create a special link with those audiences.

“You have to be conscious of the simplicity that you are bringing to every moment but at the same time it’s a very common language,” he says. “It’s non-verbal but often we will have an audience member after a show saying they are convinced the mask moved and they also heard what that character was saying!”

The show uses around eight different masks to create the full cast of characters including Bob and Bernard. Created by Russell Dean of Strangeface Masks in Kent, the masks are carefully crafted to ensure the characters can progress through the story.

“With a mask, you are playing with people’s perceptions. If the character is going on a long journey in the show you need to put into the mask maybe three, four or five different expressions,” Russell explains.

“With the masks for the two lead characters I’ve put in sadness, regret, optimism, grim determination and melancholy. It’s not the full expression, it’s the photo you throw away when people are between crying and laughing, and you play around with that.

“When a mask first comes on stage, by having the suggestion of a smile or the suggestion of tears, we take all those possibilities. Then we start to project back onto it what we think is appropriate at that moment. The mask isn’t changing but we are projecting onto it. It’s the audience member doing the work.”

Russell discusses the characters with Rachael before making small maquettes for each one. He’ll then make a video of the maquettes which he sends to Rachael before agreeing the final masks. With Bob and Bernard, he needed to ensure they have distinct personalities.

“The two men have an age gap between them and you really do need to accentuate that. With masks you are playing on stereotypes because that is the way our perception works. So if it’s an older guy you have to put them into an older person stereotype with grey hair and bags under their eyes.

“You’re playing into something which isn’t really acceptable stereotyping but it’s the way the mask and the character is played which makes the difference. Often the most subtle and brilliant mask performances are the ones where the mask sets out who the character is expected to be but then they develop them into these most extraordinary individuals.”

And the results create memorable theatre, says Russell.

“Mask theatre tends to shoot straight to the heart, it’s a very emotional experience which tends to go very deep and stay with you. People will think about the show for a long time afterwards.”

Dead Good: Thursday 26 to Saturday 28 March 2020.