Review: When We Died
Image credit - Ali Wright
He's dead, and it's her job to prepare and present his body for his family's final goodbye.
She often imagines what each person's life was like. But today she doesn't have to imagine who he is.
She knows him.
Faced with the body of the man who raped her eleven months ago, When We Died is a striking new play about one woman's choice to confront her trauma and tell her story, on her terms.
An early version of the play was longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2017.
Extracts have been presented as work-in-progress for PILOT Nights and China Plate's First Bite Festival (both at Midlands Arts Centre, 2019).
When We Died premieres at VAULT Festival after further development supported by Pleasance Theatre's LABS residency, the University of Northampton and the Travers Foundation.
Note: this show contains an account of rape, and descriptions of dead bodies. At no point is rape presented onstage.
Writer and performer Alexandra Donnachie has been working on When We Died for the past four years alongside director Andy Routledge.
The writer's monologue, then, has undergone lengthy and what seems to be meticulous development which shines through in terms of overall creativity aligned with an unusual plot that results in a wholly impressive performance.
When We Died is hardly an easy play to watch since its narrative incorporates references to a rape as well as some description of what happens to a body after death.
I should point out, though, that the play does not contain any graphic detail of sexual violence and the producers have made provision for audience members to leave and re-enter the auditorium as required as well as providing information about support services.
Though the connection between the two basic elements the play focuses on can, on one level at least, be seen as coincidental, it provides an extra dimension to the storyline adding emotive depth to the play.
Alexandra Donnachie's Rachel is an embalmer.
That's the kind of work which rarely gets much of an airing, so we're offered here some insight into a little understood profession that, perhaps, many of us might prefer not to know about.
However, the details we're offered about the preparation of a body post-mortem don't become obnoxious or repellant and are described in a clinal kind of manner.
At the beginning of the piece, Rachel seems to be talking to a counsellor or therapist and she proceeds to relate her story alternating between glimpses into her working life and events which took place less than a year before.
As an embalmer, Rachel's job is to prepare a corpse for final goodbyes from family and friends.
Her aim is to provide professional care for both the body and the family of the deceased.
So, not only does she have to embalm the corpse but she also has to meet his family.
On the occasion she describes, the body she is preparing is that of the man who raped her some months previously.
And that leaves her considering if she should tell the deceased's wife about the rape her husband committed.
Director Andy Routledge opts for a suitably clinical setting described by a white mat covering the acting area, evoking Rachel's place of employment and the nature of her work.
Atmosphere amplifies the emotional intensity through the use of a well-designed soundscape that veers between extraneous noises that are sometimes almost inaudible in the background but morphing at times into music.
And led lights embedded along the edges of the mat change colour to reflect Rachel's varying moods during her account.
Alexandra Donnachie reveals Rachel's story in a calm and measured way, ably and effectively using movement and actions to describe both her inner feelings and, for example, the workings of equipment she uses in her job.
Though we find her performance reaching something of a fraught crescendo towards the end, the overall tone is somewhat understated but nevertheless powerfully describes the affects on Rachel's life and relationships of the trauma she has endured.
When We Died is a poignantly affecting, well-written and well-judged monologue that treats a disturbing central issue with painstaking sensitivity yet leaving us with a semblance of hope.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for The Vaults
Our show listing for When We Died
Read our reviews' policy