I smell like smoke and I feel anxious. Have I just been at a family BBQ? No (but sort of yes in a way?), I’ve been to see The Director at Arts House. The Director is an interesting experience, teetering on the edge between of a Ted talk and a play, between reality and artifice. It delves into themes that are not often discussed in polite conversation of funerals, death, and what happens to your body after you’re no longer in charge of it. We’re lead on this journey by Scott Turnbull, an ex-funeral director and Lara Thoms, playing an enthusiastic wannabe funeral director.
This review will try to preserve some of the surprise of the show, because I think much of what works needs to be unexpected and experienced individually. Go and see it to fully understand how each element works, because The Director in many ways is a very personal production.
The opening of the show set the tone perfectly; it was precise and calculated with clear intention behind each action yet had a macabre awkwardness and humor, emblematic of the entire experience. From the outset, great effort was put into transporting the audience to each environment they were exploring by using sounds and aromas to conjure setting such as crematoriums, office spaces, flower filled viewing rooms, and eulogies. As funerals are a time of remembrance, the use of scents reinforced that connection of smell and memory. It was an ingenious bit of theatre craft and effective, although the residual odour on my clothes forced me to take a shower once I was home. Perhaps don’t wear your best clothes to this event or be prepared to do some washing the next day. The sound design was excellent, flooding the theatre with fire and chaos. Scott sometimes struggled to project over the top of the crushing noise, but what dialogue was lost could usually be inferred from the action onstage.
The two performances were a point of contention for me during the first half hour of the show. At first, Scott’s naturalistic delivery felt slightly stilted and awkward juxtaposed against the more non-naturalistic setting. There were a few clearly scripted jokes that didn’t quite hit the mark and came off as forced due to delivery, although the more anecdotal stories that seemed less rehearsed were genuinely funny and acquired several laughs from the audience. The writing was at its strongest when you couldn’t see the writing on the stage and I would have enjoyed more authenticity in the delivery. The stiff conversations between the two eventually eased into more natural discourse, revealing elements of each character in delightfully melancholic monologues. Lara is clearly a performer and theatre creator, going so far as to give Scott “live” directions on how to improve his coffin salesmanship. There are many instances when Lara takes on the role of a teacher, guiding Scott through the performance and steering the action to its climax. At other times, Lara was a student, learning from Scott on the trade of organizing a funeral from areas as diverse as flower arrangement, picking music, how to prepare and store ashes, and dealing with emotional family members. Powerful moments creep out of this dialogue; it truly was wonderfully crafted so as to weave between reality and fiction seamlessly. One section in particular was a Q&A section that started as a bit of audience interaction, but slowly veered into unsettlingly human territory in a truly touching moment. These slow reveals were perhaps my favourite part of the production, the slow realization that impersonal stories couldn’t be extracted from personal experience and that no one will ever be completely removed from death. The dynamic between the two performers also was formed on this basis, the personal true life story of Scott, the impersonal theatrical version of Lara. Reality and artifice blended together, revealing that in many respects there is no difference between the two. I wasn’t sure which stories were true, but they all affected me so deeply that I was shaken as I left the theatre.
I found myself crying at one point. I don’t want to recount which story it was that hit me, because I think each member of the audience identified with different sections and I don’t want to lead any type of response, but as I listened to Scott retelling a simple story I started quietly weeping. The moment was somber and intense, but being a professional Scott was able to channel my grief and bring me through it. I have a lot of respect for what this show accomplished and the emotions it was able to evoke. The precision and respect shown by the two performers was remarkable, becoming almost ritualistic in their handling of death. The elements that I disliked at the beginning became strengths as I understood the intention behind them, leaving me with many existential questions but also comforted that there are people who will look after me when I’m gone. A masterfully human production.