'The Art of Dying' review or 'Don't get comfortable.'

The Art of Dying, Nick Payne
Royal Court Theatre, 3rd July 2014
Written for Time Out

Nobody likes talking about death. Hell, I don’t even like writing the word down. But we need to talk about dying. The Royal Court knows this and last year hosted a series of talks and readings about the D-word. Out of this came Nick Payne’s play, ‘The Art of Dying’ which focuses on his father’s death. It makes for a weepy night out – even if it does feel a little indulgent. 

Payne performs the one-man show himself, although it's more like a casual chat than a full-on performance. He spends the show seated at a chair, isolated on an elevated blue stage. Oliver Townsend’s set is totally spare, apart from a packed medicine shelf that lines the back wall. Occasionally we hear the bleep of a life support machine. Everything is very still and very restrained in Michael Longhurst’s elegant production. 

In typical Payne fashion, the story of his father’s death is interwoven with two other tales. We learn about physicist Richard P Feynman and his young wife, who is dying from lymph node tuberculosis. We also hear about Maggie from Milton Keynes, who has muscular dystrophy and is ‘thinking about stopping’. These stories bolster the structure of the play – but they’re really just a side-show.  

Payne is most effective when considering the language of death. A nurse discusses the ‘culture of optimism’ the hospital encourages and insists on making Payne’s father ‘comfortable’. The ways we avoid mentioning that word – death – are numberless and it is brave of Payne to confront this issue head-on. But there are points when you wonder if therapy, rather than theatre, might have been the better option here.