Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Quality writing and characterisation in a thought-provoking piece from Trevor T. Smith that examines our attitudes to dementia. An ageing actor explodes the myth that those with dementia don’t know what is happening to them in a poignant and dry witted cameo of what faces us all, whether we are on the inside or the out.
Around 1% of the UK population has some form of dementia – that’s 700,000 people or approximately the population of Edinburgh at Fringe time. This number is expected to double every 20 years as life expectancy continues to increase.
Despite vast sums having been invested in the search for drugs that postpone or slow down cognitive decay, relatively little is known about what those with dementia are actually experiencing. So perhaps it’s time we stopped treating the condition as a disease and started recognizing it as a state of mind. At least that’s the central tenet of “An Evening with Dementia”, written and performed by Trevor T Smith.
Smith plays the role of an actor with dementia. He is clear that he has got dementia but is unequivocal in his view that he is not suffering from it. In fact, in some ways he is actually quite enjoying it. He can play games with the “blue coats” that continue to invade his privacy. Feigning deafness is one trick. Never answering a question with a relevant statement is another. His only problem is that he sometimes can’t remember what he remembers.
This is not a story in the sense that it has a beginning, middle and end. It is just a piece that is trying to raise awareness of what dementia might look like from the inside looking out. Smith’s character comes out with statements that most people who have had any experience of dealing with a person with dementia will be familiar. For example, saying anything that makes sense to them will give them confidence. Doing things they remember doing provides similar reassurance. And so on.
Smith has given himself a real challenge with this piece. Bar one brief totter into the audience (almost, I suspect, to provide those watching with a little light relief from what is a fairly heavy subject), he sits alone and quite still in a chair. Like a lot of older people in fact, with or without dementia. But he still puts a tremendous amount into the performance. The fingers, gnarled and twisted, perhaps indicative of arthritis. The right hand gently shaking throughout – Parkinsons perhaps. The eyes, squinting like a mole’s, uncertain of what they see. The voice, squeaking and whistling gently through a gap in his teeth. Even his breathing sounds chesty, phlegm crackling and wheezing away in the lungs. And the excess of saliva was real enough – after all, a lot of older people do find it quite difficult to swallow.
Most of the time you can empathise with what he is saying. It felt a little discursive at times but that may well be the point he was trying to put across – those with dementia may well be prone to discussions of unrelated topics. I felt he drifted a little too far off piste on one or two occasions, venturing into subject matter that wasn’t totally in keeping with the piece or its theme but that’s a minor criticism of a well structured play.
Those with dementia are always being assessed. So were we assessors as well? In part I suppose we were. I had a genuine interest in what he had to say and his overriding point that we should learn to accept dementia as a state of being rather than as a precursor to the lights finally going out is one that has had me thinking ever since. It isn’t the easiest hour I have had at the Fringe but it’s certainly one of the most thought provoking.