Alzheimer’s is a disease close to the hearts of many people, as it affects so many of such a wide variety of ages, cultures and societies. Part of the pain of Alzheimer’s is the complete helplessness of its sufferers: it is such a difficult condition to trace and treat. Six Billion Suns is a brave and inspiring piece of theatre, performed in Czech and English by this inventive theatre company hailing from the Czech Republic, which tries to convey some of the pain of the disease, not only of the sufferers but of those close to and caring for them.
An unusually successful feature of this particular show is the cast’s melding of these two techniques together; moments of frank speech to the audience from the actors drift into the confusion and upset of the characters.
The episodic production goes through a number of scenes which attempt to shed light on the condition for the audience and help them to see the challenges faced. The opening of the piece is a long pause, with nothing onstage for some time. The performers then enter in confusion, saying, “I don’t get it”. From here, the heart-wrenching simplicity with which the effects of Alzheimer’s are shown really catches us off-guard: the repetitive actions and confusion of the characters are clear from the outset. We then hear perfectly fluid speeches from the cast in Czech, characterising the contrast of the sufferers’ former selves with the thoughts they can no longer convey.
Aside from this, there are moments of breaking character where the actors address the audience directly to explain certain elements of the show. These more lecture-like moments complement the narrative scenes while managing to not patronise or preach. One point which highlights the difficulty of Alzheimer’s diagnosis is the ability, or inability as it turns out, of the audience to recall the facts of a story told to them about a piece of research in the show. This idea brings the issues of the piece to the audience in clear sight and demonstrates how blurred the lines can be in the diagnosis and care for those with the disease.
An unusually successful feature of this particular show is the cast’s melding of these two techniques together; moments of frank speech to the audience from the actors drift into the confusion and upset of the characters. The flawless flow of these transitions creates a sense of haze for much of the piece, adding to the characters’ frustrations and the upsetting realisation of their suffering. Another scene where we see an elderly character struggle to remember who his family are around the Christmas tree is particularly affecting.
The only slight stumbling point is that, in their switching between scenes and styles, it is occasionally difficult to latch onto the emotional turmoil of the scenarios; the effect of certain points becomes lost in the momentum of the show. However, in tackling an incredibly difficult topic, this relatively young group (for the most part) have tapped into something truly human, incredibly moving and unbelievably important.