Alison Croggon on Ridiculusmus’s extraordinary final show, the maddening and deeply moving Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!
Warning: spoilers within. Short version: a maddening, merciless and moving performance by extremely accomplished artists. Don’t miss it.
Sometimes writing about a performance is very difficult. Sometimes it’s almost as if it won’t quite translate into words, as if its very nature resists the kinds of sense that language wants to make.
Sometimes, as with Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, you don’t quite know where to begin. I suppose, as the Red King said to Alice, I should begin at the beginning, seated in the auditorium at the North Melbourne Town Hall looking across this very Victorian space, stripped back so we can see the ornamental architraves and ceiling roses of its past grandeur.
It reminds me that before the town hall was an arts centre, it was the home of all kinds of civic performance. Mayoral gatherings, I guess, the kinds of events where pillars of society were honoured. Political meetings. Wedding receptions. Pomps and ceremonies. Now it’s a huge, empty, polished wooden floor, with a stage at the back. Towards the front are a round antique table and two chairs, placed on a circular rug, and suspended above these is a chandelier. Somewhere a huge clock is ticking. Tick tick tick tick.
Eventually, way back in the distance, we become aware of two figures inching through a door. A very old man (David Woods) and a very old woman (Jon Haynes), dressed, like the space, in the grandeur of a bygone era: he’s in a tuxedo, she’s wearing a crimson evening dress, a sequinned handbag, a long necklace.
They are both, according to the program notes I consult later, 120 years old: frail, bent double with spinal curvature, moving at the kind of geologically slow pace that does something to time itself. After what seems like about half an hour, they’ve shuffled two metres. Another metre later, and I wonder if the entirety of the show is going to be their progress towards the table (they are obviously moving towards the table, because there is no other destination).
They are definitely going to get there eventually, and we are going to watch their entire painful, excruciatingly slow progress across this floor. She is clutching his arm as if she might fall over, and he shuffles forward determinedly, holding her up, although it seems as if he might at any moment collapse with the effort.
At last they’re standing in the middle of the hall. There’s still the vast desert of the length of the floor before them, and they have to turn to face us. Which is difficult, they must use all their bodies, all their strength, to make the smallest movement. By this time ripples of laughter are running through the audience. It feels cruel, it feels that we are laughing in mockery at this absurd pair, at the extremity of their age, at their frailty. The truth is that we are.
And now they are walking towards us. Now Norman must courteously help his wife Violet (we learn their names, though I can’t remember how, maybe through some process of osmosis) into the chair. She is stuck suspended with her arms pointing like wings behind her. Eventually…she is in the chair. But somehow, although you feel that it should be a relief, it isn’t.
We’re still laughing. It still feels cruel, although I suspect I’m not alone in thinking, yes, if I’m lucky, I too will end up in this purgatory. Somehow, because we have already watched them for so long, we are now implicated in the lives of these two impossibly ancient characters. These two performers, Haynes and Woods, who for the past quarter century, as Ridiculusmus, have created some of the most interesting and provocative comic theatre I’ve seen.
This, the program says, is their last show together, and I read that mortality into the show as well. I begin to think of the heiratic, ceremonious slowness of Noh theatre. These performers may as well be masked: Woods’ face is certainly a mask, his mouth constantly open, distorting his speech.
Norm croaks something inaudible. I lean forward, trying to hear. He croaks again. “Lovely,” says Violet. They seem to be celebrating something, perhaps some anniversary. Norm addresses us as guests, paying tribute to Violet, to their beautiful garden. “Lovely.” It’s pure Beckett, stripped of language and yet strangely ornamented. Winnie on her mound, trapped in her body.
What follows is a very slow farce, people appearing and disappearing through different doors searching for each other. There is a third character, Arthur (also Jon Haynes) who seems to have been part of an erotic triangle. Between these three we feel the ghosts of tensions, old passions long played out; or more accurately still extant, but now revealed in agonisingly laboured movement.
I realise that I am watching a farce lumber towards the tragedy of death. First Violet, then, in the midst of his constant, disturbing, almost alienated grief, Arthur. None of this would be in the least supportable if Woods and Haynes were not the most consummate performers, extraordinary clowns whose physical skills constantly force us to pay attention because they are so consciously present.
Occasionally the performers take mercy on us. When the slow motion suddenly breaks into fast motion, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Or a moment when Arthur pauses in his endless sobbing and leans forward to gulp down Norm’s pudding while he’s shuffling toward a cupboard to get a spoon. A dog. (A dog!) Norm reading messages from social media, a cacophony of incongruent voices. The embrace at the end, which is, after all this time, so movingly desperate, or desperately moving, or both.
The performance rolls pettiness, love, selfishness, lust, viciousness, compassion, comedy, sorrow, tragedy, pathos, into a single intolerable, transfixing unit of time. Like life. It finishes with Norm, the last man standing, dealing with the impersonal erasures of bureaucracy as the souls of the dead roll out of sight. Alone, himself facing death. As are we all.
Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!, created and performed by Jon Haynes and David Woods Lighting design by Richard Vabre, sets and costumes by Romanie Harper, sound design by Marco Cher-Gibard. Arts House at North Melbourne Town Hall. Until November 25. Bookings
Auslan interpreted performance: Friday November 23.