Karla is throwing a surprise birthday party for her husband Max with their closest friends. But Max has some terrible news. He’s only got weeks to live. Tonight he has to decide whether to tell his pregnant wife and their friends the truth, or whether he should keep the killer disease a secret and deal with it in his own way. Is it kinder to hide things which you know will hurt the people you love? Or is it just a way to selfishly avoid having to see their suffering?
Awake is a hard-hitting show which looks at the morality and emotional pain surrounding terminal illness through a powerful mixture of dialogue, dance and circus acrobatics. Max’s illness causes him to experience delusions and strange visions; we watch from his point of view as the party repeatedly descends into dark, disturbing games. The decision to convey this chaos using elements from the ritual Balinese Ketjak Monkey Chant and taking influence from Dante’s Inferno works very well. The friends play a game of Monkey Devil which soon turns nasty; in a reflection of his impossible struggle with his illness, Max tries to repel the eerily-howling human monkeys.
Things become more disconcerting still as friends morph into devils, angels and temptresses. Here the use of circus elements and athletic dance-with-death scenes create a suitably sinister, fantastical atmosphere. What really makes the show so moving, though, is the cast’s haunting outbursts into songs which sound like a mixture of sacred music, Eastern European folk tunes, and Rachmaninoff’s vespers. When their voices soar in harmony as if singing a dirge, you realise that in hopeless situations like this there are no solutions; all you can do is let your soul cry out in anguish.
Sensitive and authentic, ‘Awake’ is a challenging production tackling terminal illness, creating a show that is both beautiful and tragic.