An Instinct For Kindness, Chris Larner’s story of a journey to an assisted suicide clinic with his ex-wife, opens at the Trafalgar Studio 2 next week. Here Larner shares with us how he journeyed from repulsion at the idea of putting the story on stage to embracing the experience in her honour, transforming tragedy into theatre.
On 9 November 2010 at seven in the morning, I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel near Zurich, drinking espresso, smoking roll-ups and with my head in cartwheels as I tried to make sense of why I was there. It occurred that I must make this into a play.
And immediately, I was repelled by my own mercenary crassness.
For I was in Switzerland with my ex-wife Allyson, taking her to Dignitas. By 09:00, Allyson was up and eating her last breakfast. By 12:30 I had an empty wheelchair to bring back to England.
Back in England, the story was burning a hole in my heart. By January I had again come round to the idea that it must be a play. Allyson had been an actor, and a fine one and she was passionate about what theatre could – and should – do, uniquely able to transform both performer and audience. Theatre was the logical medium, if any. I told James Seabright the story over a curry in Streatham. A tear fell from his eye into the biryani below and he agreed to produce.
It had to be a one-man show. Neither an actor ‘playing’ me, or someone pretending to be Allyson, seemed appropriate. James suggested Hannah Eidinow as director; she and I met and reckoned we together could kick this thing into touch. I started writing. There was much to write. I had known Allyson for 28 years, and a lot had happened.
The more I wrote, the angrier I got. Allyson had suffered twice. Firstly, MS [multiple sclerosis] had robbed her of her body, stolen her independence and her love of life: nobody’s fault, except perhaps the omnipresent and merciful god, of whom we hear so bloody much and whose tight-lipped rules we supposedly broke. But after all that, to suffer the monstrous struggle to be allowed to die: the secrecy, bureaucracy and fear, the dubious legality, the money for the needless travel to a distant land. And because of what? Because the UK has not the bravery, will or rationality to change the law or even talk about it.
Rehearsing with a half-written jumble of notes, scenes and memories, Hannah edited, encouraged, sat there until I’d written it, frowned, made connections and suggested poetic flights. Often we stopped with no choice but to weep and wondered out loud at the mad masochism of putting ourselves through this. And expecting an audience to follow us?
We cut the anger. Why push an audience away with a rant, however righteous, when you can entice them with a simple story? Anyway, we reasoned, audiences would get angry on Allyson’s behalf without my telling them to. You’d have to be stone not to be angry.
Hannah had to remind me to act. I had forgotten: I was a writer. She reminded me to discover afresh the images and incidents, connections and surprises. And so the script was transformed from descriptions of feelings, places and Allyson, and replaced with my performing them.
Two particular pre-Edinburgh previews were vital for me; at the college in Leeds where Allyson had taught drama and the Arts Centre in Otley where she had lived. These gigs had audiences of Allyson’s family and friends, people who had known and loved her. And to my relief, they all said I had ‘got’ Allyson right, that her spirit lived in the play.
And to answer the horror that I had felt at my impulse to commit this to the stage that morning in Switzerland of Allyson’s last day, they said with one voice that she would have blessed this strange, cathartic project and that she would want me to shout it loud from the top of the highest hill in the land. So it feels right to be bringing it to the West End this month.
"Often we stopped with no choice but to weep"