It’s my first review on here—In Other Words, my first assignment—which means that when I walked into Traverse Theatre on Friday evening, it was with a spring in my step and the freshness of experiential novelty. When I entered through the door, the first thing that struck me was Frank Sinatra humming from the speakers.
A few steps forward brought me properly into the performance venue, and thus the second thing that struck me was that Matthew Seager and Angela Hardie were already onstage and in character as Arthur and Jane. Most of the audience members were already settled into their seats, but honestly did not heed Seager and Hardie much attention. Understandably so: there wasn’t much going on—mostly just smiling and laughing and fond stares.
Arthur and Jane are clearly lovers, minding their own business in their own little world. Theirs is an age-old and timeless dynamic. The atmosphere reminded me of when you put an old episode of a show you’ve watched a billion times on the TV, for low-pressure background noise and intermittent tuning-in. The scene onstage is such a quintessential vision of romance that it could well go unwatched, unobserved.
Until, that is, the tone shifts.
At once and without warning, we’re plunged into the full effects of Arthur’s Alzheimer’s disease. The play cuts straight to the chase, so we’re quickly made to confront the reality of his condition, in all its physical failings and emotional gravity. Its immediacy serves as a disclaimer: we’re in for something honest, disturbing, and gritty, just as much as it can be soft, sweet, and light. It serves as a certain tough truth as well: adversity strikes with surprise, and leaves nobody untouched.
The play weaves in and out of narratives recounting Arthur and Jane’s lives together. Its lack of chronology mimics how the disease warps time. We’re taken back to when they first met, then to the thick of their relationship, then to their first dance together, and so on. These deliberately spliced fragments feel effective and necessary, and are all seamlessly bound together by Sinatra’s music, which echoes throughout. Never mind the pandemonium of pain, of hardship; “Fly Me To the Moon”, in particular, acts as a gentle grounding in which both characters can find safety and solace, and remember themselves.
Arthur and Jane are charismatic forces to be reckoned with by some moments, and resigned shells of their former selves by others. It’s hopeful and heart-wrenching. Seager and Hardie do a phenomenal job of reenacting both the exuberance of newly-planted and budding love, and the subsequent loss of its vigour as Arthur’s condition deteriorates. They successfully capture and convey each of these—and all else in between—with such depth and dexterity that they appear transformed. Deft manipulation of their bodies and expressions allow them to seamlessly flit between youth and age. I’m so drawn in and thoroughly convinced that I completely forget that it’s all a performance. They wear the skin and form and pulse of their characters in all their situations so naturally, that it’s like I’m genuinely watching two lives unfold before me.
Certainly, the strength of In Other Words resides in how personal it feels. On a technical level, even the performance space enables that, as the set’s simplicity (two armchairs, two glasses of wine, and a lamp) and the layout of the venue (a small, flat, square stage surrounded on three of its edges by audience members) deepens the intimacy of the experience. Seager and Hardie occasionally break the fourth wall as well, as if engaging us in conversation. Lighting and sound are wielded to replicate Arthur’s declining mental cogency and his accompanying frustration through sheer sensory overload. His confusion and distress are palpable. The boundary between performance and reality is easily forgotten.
Yet it’s not all pain. Awkward dancing and sharp-tongued jokes abound in this play as well. The humour is cheekily British. The plot wasn’t anything unpredictable or groundbreaking, but I like to think that this made the play all the more potent. I went into it fully aware of what I was in for, but no amount of anticipation could’ve prepared me for the tears. I cried four times. I could tell how things were going to unfold, but still I cried four times.
The play wasn’t anything sui generis in its premise, but this certainly didn’t detract from the strength of its performance and portrayal. No – just as Sinatra was a common thread within Jane and Arthur’s shared experiences, the play itself acts as a common thread tethering us in universal humanity and experience. Is anybody completely immune to disease and ageing and death? And is anybody completely immune to the forces of love and hope? Is suffering ever truly unique, or is it just the same force taking on varied forms? And what about strength?
In Other Words magnifies, scrutinises, and dissects the complexity of Alzheimer’s disease, and communicates the experience of this. Arthur might be its sufferer, but he and Jane are both victims of its complications. It’s important social commentary, and it commands awareness and attention. But beyond this, it’s a tale of resignation and resolve, of confusion and clarity, and of loss and love. In Other Words isn’t something beautifully conclusive or easily palatable. It offers no closure, no answers, no solutions, but instead candour and contemplation.
And maybe, as Sinatra himself might say: that’s life. A struggle against, amidst, and between, everything so, so human.
PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre