“Heiney’s script is brimming with sharp fiery wit and mounds of one-liners that inject a very human sense of levity into the proceedings”
The narratives around mental health in the arts can often feel misguided – shows such as Dear Evan Hansen and 13 Reasons Why harbour downright harmful ideas by romanticising illness and using it to excuse sociopathic behaviour. Where Original Death Rabbit soars triumphantly above this mire is by crafting a story that’s about mental health, but in a hugely multi-faceted and culturally resonant way that is intellectually mature and gleefully silly.
Original Death Rabbit is a one-woman show featuring Kimberly Nixon as the titular Death Rabbit (her real name is never revealed) and written by Rose Heiney. Death Rabbit details how being photographed at a funeral in a rabbit onesie turned her into an internet meme, and how becoming intrinsically entrenched within the validation-seeking spheres of Twitter and sites like Buzzfeed had devastating long-term effects on her psychologically.
If that all sounds a bit heavy, don’t worry – Heiney’s script is brimming with sharp fiery wit and mounds of one-liners that inject a very human sense of levity into the proceedings. The big ideas are smartly concealed amongst eclectic plot threads, such as online forums about Richard Curtis films, and an obnoxious friend named Penny.
The script’s perfect blend of reality and theatricality is aided in no small part by Nixon’s masterclass of a performance that captures the ostensible ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ desensitised attitude of the millennial generation to a tee, but also lets the cracks in this mask show at very precise and poignant moments. The relatability is heightened further by Louise Whitemore’s set – Death Rabbit’s exquisitely unkempt flat, littered with dirty clothes, microwaveable burgers, and spots of damp in the walls. Director Hannah Joss has tied together flawlessly every element to paint the reality of how it feels to be a part of the society that struggles to get by but feels obligated to depict immaculate lives on social media.
Eleven days in, saying Original Death Rabbit is the best play of the year doesn’t seem like particularly high praise, but I’m confident that twelve months down the line, this extraordinary piece of theatre will still be a contender. If this is any indication of the storm that the intimate Jermyn Street Theatre is brewing up for its 2019 output, we should all be very, very excited.
“The cast’s depictions are all pin sharp, yet McGann stands out”
Alex is an artist enduring the final stages of his life following a brutal, second stroke. Living, barely, in the arid, American South West, he is the subject of practical and philosophical contemplations between his son Sean (Jack Wilkinson), second wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence) and fourth, younger wife Lia (Clara Indrani) as to when and how he should be guided into the beyond. We see Alex (Joe McGann) at different stages: in his cavorting and carefree prime, between strokes in a wheelchair, and finally in a vegetative state to be sedated at the whim of his significant others. His fate is now dependent on the trio’s conflicting views of him as a father or husband, as much as on their ponderings on morality and mortality.
As a novelist for whom writing is ‘a concentrated form of thinking’, Don DeLillo seems impossible to transfer stylistically to the stage. His slow and sublime evocation of mood and abstract themes don’t promise much for a theatre-goer to engage with. Director Jack McNamara admits his reservations were eventually overcome only by having the resources to create theatricality by other means. That he pulls it off is a noteworthy feat. Lily Arnold’s set design shows us the comfortable sofa and wooden floor of Alex’s home, essential for long, angsty interactions, but surrounding it is the sand and scrub that symbolises the immense unknown, creating a sense that Alex and everyone else sit at the edge of eternity. Over this scene looms a huge transparent screen, host to some stunning video and lighting effects (Azusa Ono and Andrzej Goulding) which somehow create the distance and nostalgia of memories by technical means, assisted by cinematic sound design from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite.
Given the sedentary nature of the main character, action is difficult to contrive. The brilliance of the script prompts regular chuckles of appreciation from the audience, but emotional connection is harder to come by. The cast’s depictions are all pin sharp, yet McGann stands out, despite or because of having the hardest task, by breathing authenticity into a mostly cerebral role; an artist creating art out of his bleak context. This may or may not be a parallel with De Lillo himself, but given the control and precision in every aspect of the play, including this production, it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
A memorable production, this Love-Lies-Bleeding matches poetic imagery with precise staging. However, if you’re left pleasantly haunted by the show, it’s accompanied by a strange desire to find a copy of the text to experience it properly, as a reader.