How many near death experiences have you had? One audience member in The Birth of Death directed by Yael Karavan claimed 10 or 11, which is as impressive as it is shocking. Death comes to us all one day and yet in Britain we’re often pretty reserved when it comes to talking about it. Trying to change that, The Birth of Death is both a mediation on cross-cultural concepts of death and the opening of a conversation about it.
Even a spiritual cynic like me was swept up in the heartfelt finale
The performance starts with a Tibetan style singing bowl played live in the room. The audience is asked to listen closely and pinpoint the exact moment when its haunting sound finally stops. No one can put their finger on it exactly, symbolising the central discussion in a nutshell: when do we know the precise moment when someone has died? We’re told that some cultures believe the soul lingers for three days after the physical being has died, taking some time to part from the body they have spent so much time with.
Joanne Termarco helps us to explore these ideas by alternating sections of the performance, such as the embodiment of different interpretations of a soul, with questions to the audience. With the house lights up, audience members were invited to share their own experiences of near-death and grieving.
Termarco’s performance is highly stylised, pulling wide and expressive faces and choreographing mime and dance into her movement. She is clearly an excellent physical performer; at one point she is utterly convincing as a pregnant woman about to give birth, her slender torso rounding before our eyes. Later on she leans forward and with a transformative flap of her arms, she is suddenly flying. No ropes, no CGI, just the sheer elegance of her gestures. Whether you connect with the theatricality of her performance or not, it’s easy to appreciate Termarco’s skill.
The lighting is clever and effective. Sometimes, Termarco is picked out in a strong spotlight, sometimes she’s bathed in bright disco style lights, sometimes she just carried two handheld orbs which beam out towards us. All of it gives shape and presence to the stripped back and simple set
Some of the interactive elements weren’t entirely successful. When Termarco attempted to conduct the reticent audience into becoming a chorus of Irish paid mourners, I felt a bit lost as to what noise she wanted me to make and when, and I don’t think I was the only one. There’s a natural awkwardness about being in a large shared space and having to open up about a sensitive and delicate subject that’s hard to shake off.
However, Termarco’s tenacity pulls the show through and this is a deeply personal story was made larger by our shared experiences. By the end, even a spiritual cynic like me was swept up in the heartfelt finale. Grief is complex and unique to all of us, but in this performance at least we will never walk alone.