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When We Died by Alexandra Donnachie at the Vault Festival | Review

When We Died, VAULT Festival (credit Ali Wright) Alexandra Donnachie
When We Died, VAULT Festival (credit Ali Wright) Alexandra Donnachie

Various characters are introduced in When We Died, including Kerry, Rachel’s (Alexandra Donnachie) senior colleague, Adam, Gail, Fred, Sara and Sinead, the last of these being the wife of a recently deceased man. Rachel works for a funeral director – it would seem, anyway: she doesn’t state so specifically, but who else would embalm corpses? The critical incident in the show involves the deceased – and therefore it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the narrative is being told in retrospect. The specifics of the incident itself are limited: “I knew everything he was going to do, before he did it, right there, in our [Rachel and her ex-fiancé’s] living room.

What the show focuses on instead is dealing with the aftermath of it. There will be those who will immediately want to know why on earth Rachel didn’t approach the police with regards to what was evidently a crime against the person. There are, of course, many reasons why victims of crime don’t necessarily come forward. (The play does not categorically indicate that she didn’t report it.) Either way, the focus for Rachel is now on embalming the man (which itself must have been at least somewhat triggering), and the play’s script goes into some detail about this process, including tubes placed in the jugular vein to drain blood out and in the common carotid artery to insert embalming fluid – and so on and so forth. Apparently using an ‘embalming machine’ is not far removed from using a smoothie machine.

The choice of background music proved to be a little irritating – I might have it completely wrong, but it came across to me as the kind of jazz music that used to come on back in the days of temporary service disruptions on television, a curious choice for such a serious storyline. There is talk of attending birthday parties to mark significant milestones of close friends, with the various interactions with acquaintances and even strangers that this involves. Details of this nature all add to the credibility of a show that in no way claims to be based on any true story.

Rachel’s coping strategies are relatable – she threw herself into her work, staying late in order to delay having to go home (and thus delaying having her thoughts turn once again to the critical incident during her downtime). There are stories put on stage previously about people who have attended therapy sessions and gone away on extended retreats. But Rachel doesn’t exist in a kind of world where that is possible – the hard graft, earning a living and paying the bills must go on despite everything else.

Donnachie possesses a warm and engaging manner that definitely helped to maintain interest in the play as it progressed. For reasons explained in the narrative, an opportunity to reveal exactly what happened to Sinead couldn’t be followed through – it is left for the audience to determine whether it is just as well that a potential confrontation was held at bay as a result. I liked the exploration of the difficulties some people have discussing death, and this thoughtful production tackles some pertinent topics firmly but also delicately.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

He’s dead, and it’s her job to prepare and present his body for his family’s final goodbye. She often imagines what each person’s life was like. But today she doesn’t have to imagine who he is. She knows him.

Faced with the body of the man who raped her eleven months ago, When We Died is a striking new play about one woman’s choice to confront her trauma and tell her story, on her terms.

An early version of the play was longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2017. Extracts have been presented as work-in-progress for PILOT Nights and China Plate’s First Bite Festival (both at Midlands Arts Centre, 2019). When We Died premieres at VAULT Festival after further development supported by Pleasance Theatre’s LABS residency, the University of Northampton and the Travers Foundation.

The show contains an account of rape, and descriptions of dead bodies. Please note, at no point is rape presented onstage.

When We Died
10th – 15th March 2020
The Vaults
https://vaultfestival.com/

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