Before I launch into the detail of this review, here are two key facts: it’s experimental theatre, and it’s performed in a mix of English and Czech. For a lot of people, one or both of those statements will be an instant deal-breaker. But if you’re still reading, then I think you’ll find Six Billion Suns interesting and rewarding – a praiseworthy depiction of the reality of Alzheimer’s, albeit that some elements feel quite deeply flawed.
Five actors play five residents of an old people’s home, showing five separate symptoms of a slowly deteriorating mind. There’s a man who can’t recognise his own wife, for example, and an extremely well-mannered lady who continually blurts out entirely inappropriate words. There’s no narrative to speak of, but a few themes do emerge: most notably around the idea of medical assessment, and how we monitor the functioning of our own flawed consciousness.
The early scenes may try your patience, but over time the piece does find its own quiet rhythm. It’s aided by a voice-over delivered live by a sixth actor, who sits to one side in a wedding dress – poetically discussing the black hole left by a collapsing memory, or the “six billion suns” of the show’s title.
There’s some clever engagement with the audience, too. At one point, stepping out of character, they challenge us to memorise a deliberately-impossible story – a neat way of implying what it’s like to be continually confronted with questions you can’t quite answer. There are more playful exchanges too, and the actors sit among the crowd to watch each other’s scenes, elegantly responding in character if you give them a smile or a nudge.
But on the other hand, Six Billion Suns does occasionally fall into the trap awaiting so many practitioners of experimental theatre: doing things which are deeply meaningful to them, but make less sense to those who haven’t shared their artistic journey. There was also some dialogue which I literally didn’t understand, since the Czech sections are extensive and I couldn’t always see the surtitles. But strong acting is strong acting in any language, and it’s genuinely impressive how completely these young actors seem attuned to their elderly characters.
My main reservation, though, is around the piece’s starting-point. It begins from the ground up – as though it needs to shock us into understanding what Alzheimer’s actually is – when in fact, that’s something which most of us already have a reasonable handle on. It was only towards the end, when one particular character’s personal narrative reached a touching and chilling conclusion, that I felt it was sharing something new. So, it isn’t perfect and it emphatically isn’t for everyone – but if you’d like to try something more out-there, then Six Billion Suns will surely linger in your mind.