In his book about the onset of his wife’s dementia, former ITN journalist John Suchet explained that the one ‘mercy’ he could see about the condition was that the person with it was unaware of its full effects. But is that really the case? An Evening with Dementia — written and performed by Trevor T Smith — is an informed, informative expression of the inner thoughts and struggles of an elderly man who has dementia.
Opening with Smith sitting alone, speechless and seemingly oblivious to the entering audience, he slowly struggles to speak. However, there is no mockery here; the man’s insistence that he doesn’t suffer from dementia, he just has dementia, is important — though it gradually becomes clear that there is much about life that pains him. ‘You don't always remember what you remember’, he says more than once — and the audience knows he’s not aware of the repetition, or of the number of times he mentions he used to be an actor. Nor can you be ‘a companion to yourself’, he insists, when you can no longer even remember what you used to like thinking about. As all but his oldest memories are lost, he’s terribly aware that he’s losing his relationship with himself, that he’s no longer safe in his own hands.
Suchet and Smith clearly agree to a degree, though; at various points, the old man explains how he’s frequently visited by a younger man (who he thinks might be his son), who sometimes brings along an old woman in a wheelchair. He is amazed at the younger man bursting into tears simply because on one occasion the pair didn’t want to give each other a farewell kiss; it’s to the audience to guess that neither he nor his wife now recognise each other.
In the course of one hour, Smith shows us many aspects of this old man’s life, in particular the numerous ways he still tries to make sense of a world that’s filled with ‘ridiculous’ things like collapsible walking sticks and is increasingly populated by total strangers. From his expertise in giving ‘irrelevant answers’ to pretending to be deaf, he makes a point of repeatedly telling people to treasure old things — not because he used to love antiques, but because ‘You can’t be too careful with euthanasia about’.
This is undoubtedly an intimate monologue, but it’s not without humour along the way, especially in the way Smith ultimately justifies the ‘man speaking to audience’ structure within the story. Like any good drama, though, it nevertheless confounds expectations, not least when the former actor ponders on how he now understands Shakespeare’s words in King Lear: he ‘would mean it now’. While he still easily remembers the speeches, he’s well aware that playing the role is now out of the question, given that he’d be unable to remember where to stand on stage — or indeed where the theatre was.
There is no happy ending, of course. Gradually, the light around this old man fades and he is left all by himself in his ‘presentness’ — with little knowledge of the past and little fear of the future, he sits ‘with a silent mind and a silent tongue’. Undoubtedly, though, his audience leaves with a slightly deeper understanding of the very human reality of a condition that, sadly, many more of us will have to face — directly, or indirectly — at some point in our lives.