Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, London have recently had a five week run of Kill Me Now - a black comedy by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser with director Braham Murray; and starring Greg Wise as Jake, a long-suffering father and Oliver Gomm as Joey, a young man living with cerebral palsy. In response Colin Hambrook asks whether the debate about assisted suicide is part of a much darker expression of the desire for power over other’s lives and deaths.
The current passion for assisted suicide narratives in theatre is bleakly, almost suicidally depressing. It seems to be the mark of a society that is universally sold on the idea that a human life is only worth the amount it can consume and thus benefit the economy.
Last year I went to see Sparkle and Dark’s 'Killing Roger’ specifically to raise objections during the End of Life Symposium held after the show. I met with the usual glib and painful self-delusion from supposedly intelligent people that comes with the purportedly black and white territory of assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is an extremely complex and painful subject area.
Everything changes but nothing changes. Watching ‘Kill Me Now’ a black comedy about assisted suicide - reminds me that attitudes towards disabled people have changed little since the Nazi slaughter in the 1930s. In 2014, a survey by Scope found that two-thirds of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people, while more than a third think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else. It also found that four in 10 disabled people have been denied a job because of an employer’s attitude to disability, and showed extensive evidence of widespread discrimination and hate crime against disabled people.
Nazi propaganda in the form of posters, news-reels and cinema films portrayed disabled people as 'useless eaters' and people who had 'lives unworthy of living'. The propaganda stressed the high cost of supporting disabled people, and suggested that there was something unhealthy or even unnatural about society paying for this. Art, then as now, was used to express the idea of ‘mercy killing’ in films such as Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s Ich Klage An (I Accuse). (1941)
If the award-winning playwright Brad Fraser had been around in Berlin in the early 1930s would he, perhaps have written a play about how ‘useless’ disabled people are at eating, rather than at having sex, as is the nub of Kill Me Now? He would I imagine have turned it into similar trite, people-pleasing nonsense!
Now, as then, the predominant narrative about disabled people is that we are literally and metaphorically ‘useless eaters’, dependent on State handouts, the cause of financial hardship and recession. According to Fraser not having the ability to masturbate must necessarily mean that life is so frustrating that death can be the only answer. Only after the disabled character Joey has sampled the delights of a sex therapist, supplied on a State benefit, can he say “I don’t want to die.”
Meanwhile as Joey’s father Jake suddenly develops a degenerative condition, so an assisted suicide narrative emerges. Joey can’t can’t take the pain but only accedes to staying alive because his suicide would jeopardise his son being allowed to continue living in his home. Rowdy, Joey’s best friend, kindly obliges to do the deed. His argument is that he has a criminal record already: “Waddya want Mr S. a shot to the head, a drowning, pills, a knife…” The audience, naturally find this outrageously funny.
The Media loves assisted suicide theatre: “Funny and brutal and honest. But it is also moving, deeply emotional, and ultimately harrowing,” says The Stage. “Brilliantly shocking, yet deeply kind,” says Libby Purves, Theatre Cat. "In its discomfiting black comedy and unflinching truthfulness about disability, this play is up there with Peter Nichols's Day in the Death of Joe Egg" says Paul Taylor in The Independent.
The question remains as to how ‘Kill Me Now’ would have been received had the lead chracter's Joey or Jake been played by disabled actors? My reckoning is that the rancidness of the humour would be far more exposed.
The play was so inauthentic that a big part of the appeal for an audience becomes that thing of how well the actor can pretend to have an impairment. Of course acting is about pretending to be someone you’re not; but fake physicality is always going to be fake, in the way that Peter Sellers pretending to be Indian is so obviously ridiculous that the humour becomes instantly about racist attitudes rather than comic timing or clever lines.
As time goes on I find myself increasingly exhorted not to talk about parallels between current governmental policies and Nazism. A recent FB message said “claiming Fitness to Work assessments have killed thousands of people only hurts the cause of people trying to change policy... by making them look like paranoid loonies!” I am increasingly reminded of Pastor Niemoller's famous speech: except of course Niemoller was wrong. The Nazis didn’t come for the Jews first, they came for disabled people, those whose lives are always invisible and always seemingly expendable.
Recently a friend who is dying of cancer asked her doctor whether she could expect the same kind of treatment her husband got during his dying weeks at home some 15 years ago. Her husband had received daily visits from his GP whilst nurses were made available to attend his needs during his last difficult weeks of life. “The trouble with you old people,” the GP said, “Is that you expect too much these days.”