Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre

Monday 7 March, 2011


Beachy Head is a play about suicide. Right before the narration has even started, a man has jumped from a cliff into the waves below, forming ‘ripples’ that affect the loved ones and professionals who have to cope with the aftermath of his death.

However, perhaps more specifically, Beachy Head is a production about boxes – both real and imagined. With self-conscious references to classification and compartmentalisation, this is a work that concerns itself firmly with how we try to map understanding of the incomprehensible subject of mortality.

With such a focus on how we organise the world, it seems appropriate we are lead into the narrative through coolly delivered statistics as pathologist Dr Rachel Sampson churns out numbers and citation with punctuated precision. In this calculated and distanced discussion of death, we learn that approximately 57 million people die each year. For those of us for find such vast figures difficult to comprehend, the pathologist breaks the statistic down further, explaining that there will be one death every demi-second. Continuing this morbid explanation and leading us professionally to the story of Stephen Mitchell, Sampson explains that one death in every 9,000 is a suicide.

But like 100% of all deaths, Stephen’s is not merely a statistic. Before his jump, Stephen had an adoring wife, a job as a writer and a domestic to-do list which included a light-bulb which needed changing. Fittingly, following Dr Sampson’s statistics and averages, there will be one suicide every hour and a quarter. Do the maths, and you will realise every time this short play is performed, someone will take their own life. Functioning as an intense and multi-faceted exploration of the person behind the statistic, Beachy Head neatly illustrates how much time the practical world of numbers and analysis allows us to contemplate one life lost in this way. Thus, even before content is considered, the detached nature of statistics and the rich emotion of an individual’s case have laid down their representational rivalry.

In this story, there is no mind over matter. Neither is there any matter over mind. Rather, we are presented with an overlapping dualism fuelled by characters whose very structured roles and responsibilities highlight the ultimate mystery of death. The characters each have a definite role and, especially in the case of Dr Rachel, a well-researched vocabulary that immediately differentiates them from each other.

However, despite the numerous attempts to explain death, none quite rival the ghostly presence of Stephen’s character on stage which provides the visual representation of past or memory. Hiding behind a shelf of filing boxes, Stephen’s real human presence acts in fierce juxtaposition to the classification systems of medical science and material possessions the surviving humans try to place him in. With a fiery touch of irony, Amy and Dr Sampson refer to a box of ‘personal effects’. Stacked up on a mobile shelf, these items could never be more impersonally delivered and function to highlight the ultimately allusive nature of the subject matter. These experiments with different ways of representing death give a rounded, if not complete, representation.

Like waves breaking on a shore, representation and constructed reality layer upon each other in the play’s numerous mesmerising moments. Marked by its own resignation to the fact that death is ultimately unknowable, Beachy Head may struggle to find a conclusion, but this endeavour provides a thought provoking journey and, ultimately, a narrative which lies very much outside of the box.

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