The comparison between
The magnetism of An Evening With Dementia does not emanate from its unflinching realism, but from its creation of structure whilst maintaining the appearance of fragmentariness
Edgar. O, matter and
Reason in madness!
King Lear, IV.vi
An Evening With Dementia sheds light on the condition slowly liquidating the cognitive faculties of its protagonist--the terrifying indignity of senility. However, like Lear, it also shoots light through the darkness, penetrating the heart of our anxieties about mortality.
Smith begins his hour-long monologue entirely undramatically. Seated and blanketed before the audience as we enter, Smith starts abruptly, as if speaking to himself. We start with some light relief, as Smith jokes about his condition (‘wouldn’t you be depressed if you didn’t know your own name?’) and his tactical attempts to outwit it. He is defiant in the face of illness, saying, ‘I don’t suffer from anything’, pointing out a linguistic nuance which paints the elderly as victims of their own failing health.
Yet, laughter has limited use as an antidote to dementia. As Smith’s speech becomes increasingly circular, his mental collapse slowly bleeding into evidence, the situation becomes increasingly difficult to make light of. However, what we lose in shallow humour we gain in profundity, as Smith’s loss of short-term memory is compensated for by bursts of reminiscence. The childlike blur of Smith’s present consciousness seems incongruous with the vividness with which he catapults us backward to memories of seaside trips with his grandparents (‘they must have been Edwardians’). Yet Smith’s sentiment seems misdirected, his affection for those long deceased burning strong whilst he is unable to recognise his own wife and children.
The magnetism of An Evening With Dementia does not emanate from its unflinching realism, but from its creation of structure whilst maintaining the appearance of fragmentariness. Smith is not here simply to spin a sad story, but to confront us with our prejudices against mental health and our fears of our own corporeality. Though the show ultimately proves an exercise in the mind’s transience, its message endures.