Theatre review: Lost Lear offers a brilliant take on dealing with dementia

Dan Colley's piece at Dublin Theatre Festival is based around a controversial technique involving playing along with a dementia patient's long-term memories 
Theatre review: Lost Lear offers a brilliant take on dealing with dementia

Em Ormonde, Venetia Bowe, Clodagh O'Farrell and Manus Halligan in Lost Lear, at Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival.

Lost Lear 

Project Arts Centre, ★★★★★

Specialised Early Care for Alzheimer's, or SPECAL, a technique popularised by the writer and psychologist Oliver James, involves playing along with a dementia patient’s long-term memories to create a world that’s less confusing and terrifying for them.

To do otherwise, to question them and insist on the supremacy of the present over the past they are reliving, is, according to James, to make the sufferer “like an actor in a play where all the other actors seem to be performing a different one, they either become terrified and panic-stricken or aggressive.”

James’s metaphor points to the innate theatricality of SPECAL, and it’s one that writer and director Dan Colley picks up on in this inventive, touching and technically accomplished production. The Alzheimer's Society, it should be noted, does not support SPECAL, calling it “controlling and prescriptive”. 

Venetia Bowe and Peter Daly in a scene from Lost Lear.
Venetia Bowe and Peter Daly in a scene from Lost Lear.

However, Colley’s is not a critique or assessment of one care technique; it is, rather, the perceptive elaboration of the theatrical metaphor — the actor as human, the play as the life — to depict the heartbreak and confusion that comes with dementia, the struggle for dignity that ensues.

A superb Venetia Bowe plays Joy, a grand dame of the stage living in the illusion of interminable King Lear rehearsals, her carers, led by Manus Halligan, colluding in her fancy. Her son, Conor (Peter Daly), is cruelly reduced to a hesitant, sceptical interloper in this arrangement. Cast as the understudy — he’s not even “off book” yet, Joy chides — he’s doubly estranged from the woman he used to know, albeit problematically.

Lear’s “tempest of the mind” is never far away, ingeniously evoked through a mixture of visual and aural techniques. Screens and puppetry are used to haunting effect, with Bowe’s bravura performance taking us through layers of past and present, identity and its loss. 

Brilliantly conceived and executed, Lost Lear strains a little against the confines of the Project’s Cube space. That’s a pity, but not enough to detract from Colley and company’s remarkable achievement.

  • Until October 8

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