Breathing Corpses is not a play about the living coping with death. It is hardly about the living but rather, as the title suggests, the half-dead: the characters had a close encounter with a cadaver, and their minds are dropsical with thoughts of death. Do they cope? Most people do, but not they. They collapse with singular ease under the weight, wreaking more death on the way. Why do they fail with such gusto? It is not explained — the play is not concerned with naturalistic minutiae. There is barely any character development. There are no motives. The portraits do not swell. The circular plot – the cunning of it – promises an antiseptic game, not a brooding tragedy, more card castle than gothic cathedral. Cleverness, at least the kind the audience would detect too readily, does not sit well with drama so intellectually, again, the play is a vacuum. No deep thoughts here. At no point does Laura Wade, the author, commit herself to ideas or convictions. She fights shy of didacticism. Faced with death, she seems to tell us, there is nothing to say. It is ‘surreal’, as one character puts it.
And that is the crux of the play: absurdity. Breathing Corpses is a triptych tracing three absurd reactions to an absurd concept called death. Such a play is inimical to genuine pathos; it cries out for sharp, ironic execution. The cast of the present production chooses to be smouldering and earnest instead, and might profitably have opted for a lighter, faster style. Shudders down the spine are awaited; none are forthcoming, given the nature of the play. The first scene suffers especially, as what is needed are vaudeville and clockwork comic timing. The hotel maid, Amy, played by Grainne O’Mahony, is the proverbial servant woman (nurse, school matron, parlour maid, etc.) who won’t shut up. Anarchy and frenzy are called for; O’Mahony is tame and tender, which is fine, even touching, but does not suit the part. Her acting is superbly sensitive, but just falls into the wrong category. Her real line, I suspect, is melodrama.
The rest of the cast, too, give exceptional performances (which, I repeat, would have better fitted other surroundings, but let’s forget about that plaint for now). Helena Wilson’s Kate mauls boyfriends and household dogs. She is a hysterical and sarcastic woman with a perennially pissed off face. She swears naturally. Her partner, Ben, is played by the director, Dominic Applewhite, and he carries off the violent shifts in register well, by turns meek and murderous. Isobel Jesper Jones jabbers wonderfully as Elaine, marshalling an impressive array of tones and facial expressions – an ideal raconteuse. She is credibly despondent in the darker scenes. James Watson, as Elaine’s husband, Jim, contributes two shrewd portrayals, first of a thin-lipped bureaucrat, then of the same man traumatised. His sense of control is unassailable: he does not waste a wink. Calam Lynch as Ray is simple without being a caricature. Cassian Bilton plays a bumbling charmer, who turns out a psychopath. His look of manic fixation strikes the right note; Hugh Grant with a bloodlust for raw pigs’ entrails.
Abby Clarke’s set is full of cardboard boxes, in heaps on the floor and hanging like cocoons from the ceiling. They, apparently symbols for death, exactly capture the ubiquity of death in Breathing Corpses. Finally, I felt that a significant improvement would be to cut the last scene. The first production to do without this remarkably shallow ending would be one step closer to triumph. Or, even better, Applewhite might wish to bring the cast together again for a different play – some Tennessee Williams, perhaps. His current production abounds in hints of true greatness which might have been achieved in a more favourable setting, one replete with danger, dynamism, and tears.
‘Breathing Corpses’ runs at the Keble O’Reilly until Saturday 14th November.