Narratives that deal with the aftermath of death have long been a part of popular culture, whether they are dramas that deal with the grieving process or comedies like Blithe Spirit that show how marriages are even more complicated ‘post-mortem’. Heads Or Tails – which is written and performed by Skye Hallam – could be said to be in a more comedic vein, but behind the gentle humour lies serious points about what is important and our ‘reality’…
Steph is allowed to visit the mortal plane once a year for a brief period, a homage to the ghostly visits by ‘the Maid’ & Co. in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Finding herself at the Jermyn Street Theatre, Steph’s happy to chat about her present ‘experiences’, the misconceptions regarding the afterlife and the differences between the two ‘modes’ of existence. Hallam revels in Steph’s mercurial nature, one minute earnest and pensive, the next offering a cheeky aside regarding the ‘truth’ behind given assumptions.
A common trope in ‘afterlife narratives’ is the readiness (or lack thereof) of the deceased to ‘move on’ – whether there was any ‘unfinished business’ or regrets, and the age the character was when they ‘departed’. Steph ‘died’ as a 25-year-old and you would be forgiven for assuming she would be bitter at ‘missing out’ of 50-75 years of life. She also addresses the ‘elephant’ in the room: FOMO – the Fear Of Missing Out. Steph does, however, have an equanimity that comes from clarity and closure. ‘On the other side’, the dead can see everything the living do (so be careful what you do!), and she has recognised in herself and others how fear is often mixed in with our wants and desires, which can stifle any measure of happiness. That, and once caring about what people in general thought of her, is something she doesn’t miss.
Of course, there are people that Steph still cares for and random idiosyncraises of everyday life that she inexplicitly craves, but these are offset by those who keep her company in her new abode. Asides from ‘God’ (who she vouches isn’t in the least bit impersonal and as a running joke throughout the play, referred to as ‘Helen’) there is prospect of reuniting with everyone you’ve ever lost, as well as meeting the great and the famous throughout history.
If this does sound ‘too good to be true’, Steph plays ‘devil’s advocate’ and recalls the various degrees of sceptism that she and her friends esposed previously and their vehement rationale. Steph also touches on something of a profound nature, though one would be forgiven for thinking it as another ‘flight of fancy’.
Many psychological theories state that we are sum of our thoughts and experiences – the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ incidents from the past shape our present selves. Within the world of the play, those who have ‘passed over’ are given the opportunty to relinquish their hang-ups and negative emotions in a ‘vomitorium’ of sorts. The people then would be able to leave behind what made them unhappy and ‘move on’. Knowing this, would people embrace such as an experience were it available in the here-and-now, or would it be viewed with suspicion like ‘soma’ in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – an artificial means that stymies psychological growth, with pain being a ‘necessary evil’ to remind us of what is important?
Beyond the ‘bliss for eternity’, the play reins in its ‘sugar-coated’ worldview elsewhere, while addressing the thorny issue of ‘cancel culture’. On the day I watched the play, two celebrities were the centre of such ‘cancellation’ – the merits of the past eclipsed instantaneously by a Robespierrian desire to make them persona non grata. Small wonder then that what the play had to say seemed very pertinent.
The play offers a challenging perspective – that people who were formerly held in high-esteem, but later ‘cancelled’ aren’t viewed that way in the afterlife. People there are judged by the content of their entire life, rather than general consensus of society or the ephemeral public mood. As for creative people – actors, writers, musicians, etc – who have made significant contributions to culture, but have now been ‘cancelled’ because of some perceived ‘defect’ in their character or actions, where does the ‘policing’ end? An actor who can play a nuanced, complex character with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ traits is praised. However, if the same actor or ‘creative’ exhibits the same qualities in real life, they are more likely now to be ‘cancelled’. Will society ever learn to separate the merit of art on its own basis, or will the tarnishing of creatives inevitably impact on the work they helped to create?
But I digress.
Heads Or Tails effortessly walks the fine line between being humorously entertaining and offering food for thought – the savoury and the sweet, the Heads and the Tails…
© Michael Davis 2021
Heads Or Tails is showing as part of The Living Record Festival online and can be viewed until 22nd February. Tickets can be purchased at: https://live-stream.zarucchi.com/events/heads-or-tails/feed/