FIVE STAR Comment (by Laura Meyer: 17th August 2014) +++++
Immediately uncomfortable. I was completely submersed in the disorientation and confusion which I had thought I had come to as an audience member to observe. However, this drama draws the audience in, and works to confuse the watcher in such a clever sense that not only can you sympathise, you are forced to empathise as the disorienting constructs weave around and through you, thus making YOU the hapless victim of disorientation. Is this supposed to happen? Is that man addressing us? Why is he saying these things? I watch with sadness and embarrassment as the characters jolt rigidly through moods and time. Smells, tics, looks, all so uncomfortable. All told, a clever almost immersive experience which I enjoy more and more upon reflection but which was impossible to enjoy at the moment. A superb expose of an Alzhiemers disease and its challenges.
Poignant experimental theatre about Alzheimer’s disease at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Maud Sampson: The List, 13th August 2014)
Directed by Eva Rysová in conjunction with the Czech Centre London and Theatre NoD, Six Billion Suns is a brave and experimental production exploring the terrifying reality of living with Alzheimer’s disease, from diagnosis to death and all the heartbreak in-between.
Loosely based on the character of Alzheimer's patient August and his wife, the boundary between audience, actor and character is repeatedly blurred; at various stages the cast each play the two characters and the performance is paused to allow them to directly engage the audience in naming games and memory tests, both in and out of character.
The effect of this remains unclear – perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt to disorientate the crowd in order that they feel the compounding confusion of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, but in reality it feels there is too much going on in the play threatening to drown the story. This is not helped by surtitles peppered with spelling mistakes and inconsistent grammar.
However, the cast act their parts supremely. Three days of preparation by living with people with Alzheimer's ensure some hauntingly poignant scenes – the embarrassment of trying and failing to name simple shapes and months of the year backwards, the inability to remember family members or spouses. More straight-forwardly affecting scenes of this nature would have prevented the play from coming dangerously close to falling into its own inaccessible black hole.
SIX BILLION SUNS - EDINBURGH FRINGE 2014 (Richard Stamp: Fringe Guru, 15th August 2014)
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.
SIX BILLION SUNS - EDINBURGH FRINGE 2014 (Andy Smith: Broadway Baby, 13th August 2014)
Alzheimer’s is a disease close to the hearts of many people, as it affects so many of such a wide variety of ages, cultures and societies. Part of the pain of Alzheimer’s is the complete helplessness of its sufferers: it is such a difficult condition to trace and treat. Six Billion Suns is a brave and inspiring piece of theatre, performed in Czech and English by this inventive theatre company hailing from the Czech Republic, which tries to convey some of the pain of the disease, not only of the sufferers but of those close to and caring for them.The episodic production goes through a number of scenes which attempt to shed light on the condition for the audience and help them to see the challenges faced. The opening of the piece is a long pause, with nothing onstage for some time. The performers then enter in confusion, saying, “I don’t get it”. From here, the heart-wrenching simplicity with which the effects of Alzheimer’s are shown really catches us off-guard: the repetitive actions and confusion of the characters are clear from the outset. We then hear perfectly fluid speeches from the cast in Czech, characterising the contrast of the sufferers’ former selves with the thoughts they can no longer convey.
Aside from this, there are moments of breaking character where the actors address the audience directly to explain certain elements of the show. These more lecture-like moments complement the narrative scenes while managing to not patronise or preach. One point which highlights the difficulty of Alzheimer’s diagnosis is the ability, or inability as it turns out, of the audience to recall the facts of a story told to them about a piece of research in the show. This idea brings the issues of the piece to the audience in clear sight and demonstrates how blurred the lines can be in the diagnosis and care for those with the disease.An unusually successful feature of this particular show is the cast’s melding of these two techniques together; moments of frank speech to the audience from the actors drift into the confusion and upset of the characters. The flawless flow of these transitions creates a sense of haze for much of the piece, adding to the characters’ frustrations and the upsetting realisation of their suffering. Another scene where we see an elderly character struggle to remember who his family are around the Christmas tree is particularly affecting.
The only slight stumbling point is that, in their switching between scenes and styles, it is occasionally difficult to latch onto the emotional turmoil of the scenarios; the effect of certain points becomes lost in the momentum of the show. However, in tackling an incredibly difficult topic, this relatively young group (for the most part) have tapped into something truly human, incredibly moving and unbelievably important.
SIX BILLION SUNS - Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (Linford Butler: The Public Reviews, 12th August 2014)
“I don’t understand it. What are we waiting for?” The first line of Six Billion Suns comes in almost five minutes after it begins, during which time a single elderly woman looks around, studies the audience and gets distracted by her own hands in the sort of uncomfortable silence of a morgue, or a hospice. When the first line does come, it becomes apparent that the cast are hidden amidst the audience. Six Billion Suns is a piece which manipulates expectation, plays with the boundaries and presents an oddly surreal look into the delusional sadness of Alzheimer’s disease, which for half the show is uncomfortable and almost uncomprehendable, and the other is utterly engaging.
Four performers each appear to play different personas of the old woman, who for the duration sits, looking on and for the most part the performances are daring and bold. It is a feat to make what is a very fragmented script appear to have some consistency and overall logic, which is for the most part due to the talent of the performers. They play with intimacy effectively, pushing and warping the expected barriers. The piece will occasionally break into direct address, used to explain some of the underlying concept to the audience as well as introducing them to the concept of the Addenbrooke Cognitive Examination.These direct addresses have limited success and sometimes only serve to confuse the overall style and intention of the piece for an already-confused audience. However, bold performances of physicality push the barriers of acting and certainly provide an interesting performance experience.
Some aspects of the play are spoken in Czech, with English subtitles but the piece would benefit from some consideration of the limits of their Fringe venue – two pillars create sightline issues for certain audience members. The audience is never quite sure what is and isn’t performance, which is half compelling and half simply baffling. It can sometimes also lurch into the outright ridiculous, rather than just the surreal, or the absurd. However, these shortcomings are made up for in strong performances and an interesting underpinning idea. It also deals with some difficult subjects, such as dementia and euthanasia, which are well integrated into the overall concept.
Despite some shortcomings, Six Billion Suns is notable for its audatious, courageous performances and its interesting approach to difficult subjects. Six Billion Suns could be an extremely striking piece of theatre with just some more consideration of the audience’s understanding, and now and again it feels more like abstract live art than theatre.
THE FRINGE: SIX BILLION SUNS (by Tychy, 10th August 2014)
In 1958, there was a sudden explosion in the rabbit population around the vicinity of the River Ness. One Professor McRory recruited eight students from four Scottish universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and… err, one more) to investigate. Unfortunately, none of these students were ever heard of again. This isn’t the plot of Eva Rysová’s “Six Billion Suns,” a play from a Czech outfit, Teatro NoD, which is established at the Pleasance Zoo until the 16th. I think that it is instead some sort of game, but I don’t recall the details.
At first, “Six Billion Suns” seems like anarchist or surrealist theatre; the sort of interactive, format-interrogating antics that companies such as Belt Up do so well. The play is, in fact, about Alzheimer’s disease. This is not surrealism but senility, not Dada but gaga, and this kind of irrationality would send even the most dedicated surrealist scampering back to a world where pipes are pipes and clocks do not melt.
There are five young actors, in classic bourgeois dress like André Breton and his cronies, and they are passively supervised by an elderly lady in a bridal veil (Viera Pavlíková), who sings and looks very grand and rather remote. This play is actually at its freshest outside the theatre, when the cast queue up and file in with the audience, before sitting amongst us for several beautifully uneasy minutes watching the empty stage. It’s all very exciting and I’m immediately predisposed to like this show.
But the cast are as amiable as a gang of old friends and it is here that the anarchism loses a necessary sense of danger or coldness. The audience are promised that they won’t be “terrorised.” One character hands out oranges and Tychy dutifully starts to eat his orange, anticipating that the character will soon have a senile episode and accuse the audience of stealing them. This indeed happens, but the moment passes before it has begun. The oranges really were presents and the audience get to keep them. It’s the same when the play collapses, with a power cut and the director apologising. The effect is very slightly corny or not fully exhilarating. The audience spot an opportunity to applaud and they pounce on it. Convention is at once back to its usual oppressive self.
There is no point in making this sort of theatre unless it is extreme, with a genuinely unpredictable engagement with the audience, even if this runs the risk of a punch-up or of people walking out. The anarchy is otherwise just affected. The seriousness of the play does not excuse its safeness, not least because when tackling the unnerving, profoundly distressing subject of dementia, the horror falls flat. Dementia is not horrifying in itself – it only acquires its horror from our knowledge of what is disintegrating and being lost. Without a narrative in which we get a firm sense of the characters before their senility, we essentially see them born demented.
I do not wish to come down hard on “Six Billion Suns” because it is thoroughly enjoyable. It is just that, given the subject matter, it should be more than this. The writing and direction are clever and the informality of the Pleasance is exploited to maximum effect. The cast often play superbly with the hand that they have been dealt.
I had a lot more to write about this play but I was composing the last few paragraphs of my review in a theatre bar between shows, and I cannot remember what I did with the USB stick. It must be around here somewhere. The review would have turned to the irony of including an elderly actress in the performance – yes, it would have probably gone down this road. I’m sorry.
Reality often appears in a different light than it actually is. One, of course, has no need to explain this to cognoscente of surrealism. Doctors may try to persuade us that dysfunctional nerve circuitry in the brain is responsible for this phenomenon (particularly if you are suffering from Alzheimer´s Disease). Nonetheless, the explanaton for the strange ending of the performance on 9 August is much more banal. For neither helpless drama production nor unimaginative direction was responsible - just the dysfunctional electrical circuitry of the Monkey House. There is no need to try and decipher artistic intentions when the fuses blow.
BLACK HOLE IN THE HEAD (Klára Fleyberková: A2 - The Art and Culture Magazine, 26th February 2014)
Young theatre authors usually wish to describe reality in which they live, problems that weigh them down, or simply they want to get things off their chest. Director Eva Rysová with dramaturge Ondřej Novotný and several other artists set themselves an altogether different task. Together they have tackled a subject which is for young people pretty remote – Alzheimer´s Disease.
Anyone who has had the unenviable opportunity to get close to Alzheimer´s Disease knows full well how easy this disease can (gradually) deprive a human being of little life´s details until it deprives him of everything. It turns intelligent people with a good grasp of things into wrecks in state-issued tracksuits. And although we are living in the 21st century it is one of the most common causes of death and we still cannot put a stop to it. In its own way though it remains fascinating as it doesn´t destroy a human body but the human mind, which it leads into an entirely unchartered territory. That is also why it is an inspirational theme for scientists as well as artists.
Black Hole in the Head
Director Eva Rysová´s inspiration for the production of ´Six Billion Suns´ came from her earlier contact with an actor suffering from this very disease. Together with the dramaturge Ondřej Novotný and stage designer Anna Solilová she read conscientiously many scientific materials, went to see a number of films and visited patients. One might think that such a grave subject will necessarily demand a somewhat grim treatment. But Rysová set out in exactly the opposite direction. The production referring in its title to the mass of the largest known black hole is conceived as a sequence of various situations experinced by the patients and their dear ones. In no way though are we talking about a dry portrayal, the specific situations aren´t lacking in ingenuity, a certain stylisation nor humour. They loosely flow from one to another, so, they are no acute switches being created. Nonetheless, the setting changes all the time: we find ourselves in a home for the sick, then in their own homes, at other times in a world of their imagination and anxieties. The narrative link is as much fragmented as minds and memories are steamrolled by Alzheimer´s Disease. That very fragmentation which forms the core of the production paradoxically chokes it a little in the last third of the production. When the audience finds its feet in the structure other situations come piling in and ideas the characters have duplicate themselves further. Altogether they, in fact, illustrate what the illness does to a human being. If the production´s creators gave up on some scenes the production towards its finale might well have had a greater momentum and the usual sense of an extended end wouldn´t have come about.
The performance isn´t just built on some distinctive directorial ideas such as inventive games with sugar cubes but on the actors too - Marie Jansová, Paulína Labudová, Jiří Kniha, Václav Marhold and Ondřej Novotný sit at first amongst the audience and try to build up the tension with a slightly clichéd silence lasting several minutes. The sheepish reactions, which are no doubt the intended aim of every intolerable pause in a theatre, resulted in them finally managing to gradually establish a line of communication with the audience. Much more crucial than the natural reaction to the audience response is their ability to freely transmute themselves from character to character and from one emotion to another. In specific scenes they exchanged roles with a light touch and each time demonstrated them with a certain deviation or transformation. One cannot speak in the plural as none of the actors stood above everyone else nor fitted in amongst the others. Perhaps the purely physical portrayal of old men was Václav Marhold´s prerogative, but whose work was made easier by his subtle sinewy figure of „an elderly youngster“. The group of actors of the young generation was supplemented by Olga Schmidtová who even at the age of eighty-eight not only presented her routine impish-like speech, but also from memory narrated a huge amount of text in impressive detail. Rysová used her in exemplary fashion as an example of someone of estimable age retaining a superb memory, and as such presented on the stage a canny inter-generational contrast. In fact, the casting of young actors in the main roles was a good step too. After all, old folk when they reminisce (or at least in their flashes of memory) often go back to the time when they were twenty or thirty years old. One could sense from the entire production that the play´s authors genuinely found out how sick people think, how they behave, how they react and what ails them. The black hole, which engulfs their lives, was portrayed sensitively as well as humorously, which seems to be the most natural way when looking at Alzheimer´s Disease. For one thing, it´s workable because after every laugh the audience´s constricted stomachs report that it really isn´t all that funny, it just tallies absolutely with everyday reality – this illness easily evokes funny situations but they never end up being funny. Before our grandfather ended up in that state-issued tracksuit he would merrily respond to everything with the word „eagle“.
DIRECTOR EVA RYSOVÁ: THERE IS SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL ABOUT GRIEF
inteviewed by Josef Meszáros for SCENA.CZ - The internet Theatre and Culture magazine
Eva Rysová and Ondřej Novotný´s theatre project ´Six Billion Suns´ will have its premiere in Roxy NoD on 21 and 25 November 2013. We met up with Eva Rysová after a rehearsal. She gave away that she gained most of her theatre experiences in Poland. She enjoys working independently – „I´ve no wish to be in any way limited in what I wish to create within the theatre“. The production ´Six Billion Suns´ was inspired by Alzheimer´s Disease. We were interested whether she drew on her personal experiences regarding the production. How does she perceive the world of these sick people? How are these people perceived by their neighbourhood? Let´s start with the play´s title… ´Six Billion Suns´ - that´s how the largest Black Hole in the Universe was defined,“ informed us Eva Rysová and added: „As we are dealing with memory loss it concerns black holes in our memory universe.“
You shot a very interesting teaser for the production – an elderly lady is getting ready for Christmas in August. Will the audiences see it during performances?
Our teaser is tied to the performance, above all in its meaning when grief and humour mix in an absurd situation. Olga Schmidtová takes on the role in the clip and she will also act in the play itself (alternate the role with Viera Pavlíková), and besides them five young actors have been cast (Marie Jansová, Paulína Labudová, Jiří Kniha, Václav Marhold and Ondřej Novotný).
How much is the subject of Alzheimer´s Disease a personal one?
In no way am I sorting my own problems, but the issue of this illness has made a big impact on me. Four years ago I worked with an actor with this very disease. In its own way I was fascinated. It happened that in the middle of a rehearsal which I thought was going extremely well he suddenly got up and wanted to go home as he felt he shouldn´t be there in the first place. On the stage he was unrivalled, he in fact bettered everyone else as he never ´repeated´ himself, he was always into it as if for the first time.
Signs of Alzheimer´s Disease aren´t pleasant. You wish to be authentic?
What started my interest off with this disease was the similarity in what represents for me the major elements of theatricality. The first one is the fundamental ´here and now´, I call it the principle of pure essence of the present. If you are losing your memory you may ask with interest over and over again the same thing, each repetition is for you new, it´s taking place here and now. That is what we try in vain in the theatre with every repeat performance, for repeated situations to appear and remain as alive as before, as if they were in the given moment being created in front of the audience. Another is the detection of a lie or falseness even in the moment when you no longer understand the contents of the words but are still capable of deciphering the emotional charge. We work with that in the theatre too, during rehearsals we surely are attempting, above all. To ensure that the words the actors express sound truthful. And, thirdly, it´s the link in the creation of other worlds. A human being suffering from Alzheimer´s finds himself at a certain moment in his own reality and if we wish not to be alienated from him and understand him we must try and step into his world and help to develop it – it´s the only way how to bring him and oneself relief and the possibility of comprehension. And that, in effect is what we demand of the audience, with the audience´s active willingness to accept and enter the reality of the world created on the stage without which the theatre cannot operate.
And if we are talking about fiction, artistic expression, we have the advantage that we can go a little beyond, over the limits of exact science and doctors. We may ask whether it really is an illness? Or is it a tool of Nature? Isn´t this gradual burn out, switching off, just the closing of the circle? Isn´t it a way of preparing for death? After all, demise of a person afflicted by dementia is the mirror image of the development of a new-born child and his adaptation to the world!
The sick person gradually goes back in his memories. He reaches his childhood which comes to mind ever more lucidly. The very last memory to fade away is that of his parents and home. Perhaps it has a deeper spiritual meaning. But to talk to patients and their family so openly is extremely difficult. But we can at least flirt with the idea.
Do you also provide an insight into the patient´s surroundings, his family, carers or health personnel?
We try to empathise with the patient and experience how he senses the world in which he is losing his bearings. We want the audience to imagine how it really is, how it may be when a person´s personality is being sliced away. What is he experiencing and what about his I? In our play we are attempting to tiptoe around the issue. Only that way can one get closer to the ´unimaginable´. The fact that someone´s brain has ceased functioning, which is rather bizarre.
Did you undergo some specialised preparation?
We have been working on the production for a long time. We studied professional materials, met with experts as well as patients, quesitoned friends and acquaintances who had some experience of such an ill person. We even monitored various artistic treatments of the subject. Gradually we found out that there are many more people around us than we thought who came across the disease within their family circle. We even uncovered secrets in our own families. This theatre work gradually opened the gates for us to places we never encountered before. I believe that by use of the play a discussion may ensue which could help in opening up this theme further. It´s all too clear that society is still too embarrassed to discuss certain taboo subjects.
Can you reveal something about the stage design? Does it all take place mostly in a hospital or home environment?
We are in a room belonging to an elderly lady, her home. You know, the saddest thing of all is when you get lost in your home, no GPS will help you out. We committed ourselves to a certain tragi-comical approach. You menitoned the teaser. It may seem at first comical to celebrate Christmas in August, put on a Christmas adornment instead of an ear-ring. Gradually though we unveil the tragedy behind this disease. Nonetheless, in the patient´s proximity a world is created which is rather absurd, sometimes even comical. In a way the close family of the patient suffers more. I genuinely wish that the audience is helped by our production in being able to see anew some aspects, for them to be able to accept that other reality in which the sick person has to live.
Do we across faith in the ´Six Billion Suns´ production?
It is true that prayers stay a long time in the memory of the ill. Probably because of the repetitive nature of it, but also because of its rhythm and melodical nature. Music is something that can suddenly bring memory back to life. Similarly to music and song, prayer too is something that lingers on for a long time. And similarly to sensing the physical closeness of one´s family and love. In that grief there is a lot that is beautiful.
THEY HAVE SAID ABOUT US
ŠÁRKA KOVANDOVÁ, DIRECTOR OF ALZHEIMER CHARITABLE FUND
(interviewed by Dan Moravec, a redactor of Czech Radio)
What impression did the performance of ´Six Billion Suns´ have on you as a woman who works in the Alzheimer Charitable Fund and who knows the situation pretty well?
- I was slightly nervous going to see the final rehearsal because I wasn't able to imagine how the subject will be treated. The subject is close to my heart because of my work for the Fund but also because of my experience with a patient suffering from Alzheimer´s disease within my own family. It became clear that my worries were totally superfluous, I was enthralled by the performance.
It made a very strong impact on me and for a long time it remined with me...
Do you think the picture of gradually forming dementia was accurately depicted? Didn´t you feel insulted by vulgarism?
- Yes, at least in my view, even though the illness develops differently in each patient. Offensive terms weren´t used for their own sake, they have their logic within the performance.
Is the message of the play comprehensible? Even for those less informed?
- Each one of us searches for and picks out something else, we are influenced by our own experience, but the crucial thing is that the performance provokes questions – something that is confirmed by the audience participation in debates after the show.
I firmly believe that the performance will have many reruns and will entice young people, particularly those who haven´t come across the subject of Alzheimer´s disease as yet.
NINA BALÁČKOVÁ, SUFFERER FROM ALZHEIMER´S DISEASE
(interviewed by Dan Moravec, a redactor of Czech Radio)
What impression did the performance of ´Six Billion Suns´ have on you as a woman suffering from Alzheimer´s disease?
- I liked the performance very much, in fact I was delighted by it – for one thing by the choice of subject and also by the depiction of the dementia-sufferers roles. We appreciated the way the actors were able to put themselves in our shoes – people with dementia. They must surely have taken a great deal of time and effort to comprehend us. And I am grateful for that.
Do you think the picture of gradually forming dementia was accurately portrayed? Didn´t you feel insulted by some offensive terminology?
- I found out that to us the play didn´t seem gloomy in any way nor sad (reaction which was contrary to the one made by healthy people) – simply, our reality was very accurately expressed. I recognised myself in many situations which amused me. I can imagine that the used rude words can become reality at a later stage.
Is the message of the play comprehensible?
- This performance is not only attractive but enlightening and it most definitely helps the public to understand more clearly what dementia is about.