Camus said most writers spend their lives trying to return to the inception, to the moment when they started to become a writer; that flittering stuttering spark that lit a candle in the darkest night. It can’t always be like that of course, but there are times it returns. The moment when I sat in the on the choir practice in a battered rugby club in Merthyr was one of those moments.
At the same time, my uncle had withdrawn into a shell of smiles and drifted to a nameless place of seclusion as his vascular dementia slowly robbed him of his mind, and my auntie who had been diagnosed with cancer struggled to keep it all together. I realised there and then the important role that a writer has in bringing those beautiful hidden stories to the surface of society, bearing witness to one’s time and place. There was so much happening in that room; all that sadness of leaving all that joy of staying. It was a magical moment, but soon the euphoria had worn off and I started to graft away at making the idea flesh.
I did not want to merely paint a sentimental portrait of a group of people brought together by dementia who sing. Of course, there are elements of it that are touching (six people who are slowly leaving this world and who struggle to remember their partner’s name, but who remember every word of an Elvis song after hearing a couple of notes) but alongside that misty vision of choirs and valleys and old people, I wanted to create a play that told the truth of these lives. What happens when the singing stops? What of paying the bills? What is it like to care for a loved one with dementia? How do you cope when you’re looking forward to some time together after the children grow up and leave, and suddenly you are diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease? What of the frozen dreams and lonely nights?
I met with carers in Merthyr and listened to their stories. I saw tears, laughter, anger and frustration but ultimately deep humanity and a stoic determination to carry on no matter how hard the circumstances. I tried to faithfully and honestly capture what people told me and what they would like to see in a play about dementia. It is not verbatim, but the facts and the reality are there.
This play is inspired by those voices and those meetings. It is an important in an age of the so-called Big Society, where the elderly are all but excluded from society, care homes at strained to breaking point and where charities work tirelessly at the coalface of elder care and support.
Last week I asked members of the Wrexham choir we’ve been working with what singing is to them. One lady who had been silent throughout said, ‘Singing brings us to life’, which made me cry. I feel it is the writer’s duty to bear witness, to reflect and direct, and this is my little contribution to making people feel, as my earliest influence, Arthur Miller said, ‘less alone’.
National Theatre Wales’ next production, Before I Leave, is written by Patrick Jones and directed by Matthew Dunster (Hangmen, Mametz). It will feature covers of well-known songs by artists ranging from Tom Jones to the Sex Pistols, plus a new song by Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers, and will be performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff.
Before I Leave is inspired by Patrick’s work with the Cwm Taf choir in Merthyr, which is supported by the Alzheimer’s Society. Its members have shared much of their time and experiences with Patrick, helping him to write a play that is both a celebration of the restorative, co-operative joys of choir singing and a call to arms for a renewed sense of collective responsibility. Touching on the current, urgent calls for better mental health care as well as battles as far back as the miners’ strike, this angry but ultimately heartwarming production wears its politics on its sleeves, but marches to the beat of some of our best-loved songs.
National Theatre Wales with Wales Millennium Centre
Cast: James Ashton, Desmond Barrit, Llinos Daniel, Vern Griffiths, Celia Hewitt, Dafydd Hywel, Martin Marquez, Sara McGaughey, Gaynor Morgan Rees, Melanie Walters, Oliver Wood and Lisa Zahra.
May 27 to June 11
Sherman Theatre, Cardiff