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h e a t r e
Life Support Review
Alan Bates and Nickolas Grace in Simon Gray's
brilliant black comedy, Life Support
Genius of Gray's Anatomy
- Life Support
Aldwych, London WC2
A woman lies
in a hospital bed, more vegetable than person. Her husband, a
travel writer who calls himself J.G., gets his lissome agent
to join him in talking to her. Together, they reveal they have
had an affair: "after the lunch stuff" and a bit "squalid",
or so he says. This does not please the agent at all, but she
perseveres with a joint confession that gets weirder and maybe
more fanciful. J.G. says he dreamt of his agent and wife in ecstasies
of lesbian love, and the agent agrees: "That's the truth
of it, I wanted to be your lover, not his."
Who but Simon Gray could have penned that
scene? Throughout his career he has travelled to strange, remote
lands, but, unlike those from which Alan Bates's J.G. dispatches
his jokey observations, they are situated in the heart, stomach
and bowels. His dark continent, with its secret treacheries and
convoluted pains, is human and inner. But in Life Support
there is a difference, and a dramatically important one. This
time emotional exposure has a highly practical purpose, which
is to jolt a breathing corpse back to life.
After all, nothing else has worked during
the weeks within which Gray's 100-minute play occurs. J.G. holds
imaginary conversations with Gwen, whose brain has been deadened
by a bee-sting in the tropics, and some of these have touched
on difficult matters. At times he squeaks out her accusing or
reproachful ripostes, mimicking her voice; at times he (and we)
hear Georgina Hale's Gwen herself speaking. He also plays a cassette
of Silent Night to her, gets his brother Jack (Nickolas Grace)
to ask her body for a loan, and simply sits and stares at her.
But nothing, not even his erotic revelations, gets more than
an involuntary smirk or sigh from Gwen.
Once or twice I had my doubts Jack's
slimy callousness verges on caricature but by the end I
felt that Life Support was one of Gray's finest, strongest
exercises in sardonic tragedy, black comedy, categorise it how
you will. It touches on many subjects, from the inscrutability
of fate to the way we project feeling on others to the problem
of whether and how long we should keep human vegetables officiously
alive; but at its centre is something more wrenching. How do
people cope with loss and grief, and especially with a loss that
is not yet complete and a grief that cannot be clear-cut?
The parents of missing children must feel
this way. So must the relatives of those struck down by strokes,
Alzheimer's or other such afflictions, particularly if, as in
Life Support, the relationship has an unsatisfactory,
unfinished feel to it. That a lonely, resentful Gwen found solace
in alcohol, and that J.G. was sexually unfaithful, only makes
the situation more unbearable. "Everything glowed with a
gleam, yet we were looking away," says J.G., quoting Hardy.
He and Gwen shared a kind of confused love; they barely acknowledged
it, and now it's too late.
The supporting cast responds well to Harold
Pinter's deft direction. Bates, so often the cool ironist, achieves
moments of genuine depth with the help of his clenched fists,
bunched face, and red-eyed squints of repressed desperation.
But who was the monster in the first-night audience whose mobile
phone interrupted J.G.'s moment of maximum confusion, maximum
suffering? I would have no compunction about switching off the
oxygen of someone as brain-dead as that.
7 August 1997
Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers Limited. Used with permission.