A Matter Of Life And Death is, simultaneously, an incredibly simple and profoundly sophisticated play. Simple in its presentation – just two men in casual clothes alone on a bare stage – and simple in its plot arc too: in essence, it tracks the five stages of grieving, through denial, anger, futile bargaining, depression and ultimate acceptance. But the sophistication comes from a bold and brilliant twist, which opens the way to an uncompromising discussion of mortality from a genuinely novel point of view.
Cancer is consuming Simon’s body, though he doesn’t know it yet. His best mate Paul is all too aware of how little time they have left together. How? Because Paul, alongside his day job as a stock trader, is also Death. In the world of this play, Death isn’t a hooded figure with an hourglass and scythe, but a human channel for a natural process – who feels every passing like a heartbeat, yet is entirely powerless to intervene.
This frustrating combination – all-knowing but impotent – brings a fascinating dimension to Paul’s character, which actor James Esler explores with almost pleading warmth. Paul is human, and one day, too, will die, passing the mantle of Death to a new vessel. Like all of us, he wants to make the most of his time on the planet. But how can he bear to form friendships, if he knows in advance and to the very second when each one will have to end?
Primarily, though, A Matter Of Life Or Death is Simon’s story, following him as he comes to terms with his own inevitable demise. Actor Jared More works his way convincingly through the famous five-step process, at times rejecting Paul’s brutal honesty and at times searching desperately for support. Aided by Sam Hill’s razor-sharp direction, More hits the emotional extremes he needs to, but never overpowers the intimacy of this stripped-back production. Simon’s battle is lost from the start – he knows that as well as we do – and it’s that sense of hopeless inevitability that defines More’s performance.
Credit’s also due to playwright Fred Rosen, who packs just the right amount of thoughtful material into a tight 45-minute play. His script tackles many big questions and touches on elements of religion and mythology, yet it’s always believable as a frank conversation between two best friends. The rules governing Death’s role are consistent and clear, and Paul’s motivations in revealing himself to Simon are both thought-provoking and credible. There’s judicious use of laugh-aloud humour, too, quickly establishing Simon and Paul’s close friendship – and then working to ease the pressure, whenever the intensity of the dialogue is at risk of bubbling over.
More than anything, and despite its mythologically-inspired set-up, A Matter Of Life And Death is a candid play. It has the candour of a late-night heart-to-heart, when emotional defences crumble and deep thoughts are willingly shared, and it’s a candid performance too – unashamed of its simplicity, unafraid to leave two powerful actors alone on an empty stage. And so, candidly, I’ll tell you that it’s stayed with me. Beneath the humour and the personal stories, this is a tough-talking but ultimately hopeful commentary on the certainty that all life will end.