Theatre Review – Death at Intervals

Published in The Australia Times: June 2014 Edition

By Aleczander Gamboa

With the recent introduction of the new budget by the Abbott government and the public outcry that followed after, Death at Intervals is a visual spectacle that could not have come at a better time.

An adaptation of Jose Saramago’s classic novel, the play implores its audience to imagine a world where death ceases to exist. At first, celebrations occur and a fresh new year emerges, but the pleasure is short lived when everyone realises that death no longer serves as a relief to pain and suffering.

It isn’t long before the destruction of humanity unfolds before our eyes – hospitals are no longer able to cope with the influx of sick patients, nursing homes are at peak capacity, the church questions their existence and the government succumb to corrupt means to cope with the disaster.

After an extensive era of anguish and misery, Death is recreated once again in the form of a female grim reaper. With the help of her loyal raven, she delivers letters to those who are about to die, giving them a week in advance to prepare themselves before she claims their life. The public backlash is overwhelming, as people begin to live in fear of receiving the letter and having their fate undeniably sealed.

When she stumbles upon a talented cellist and falls in love, she too starts to question her own existence and the role she plays in society, pleading to God to be alleviated of her duties. The play ends with her taking on a human form as she kisses the cellist and the stage fades to black, with the audience left in a state of wonder and intrigue as they reassess the notions of immortality and demise, as well as the universal balance between life and death.

Though the play exudes a dark, perhaps even depressing outlook on life, that’s not to say the directors have omitted the funnier and more comedic moments. In fact, it’s full of them – people are constructed out of bread as they die an obnoxious death and planes are made out of paper as they crash and supposedly burn. However, there is an underlying symbolism in each of these humorous scenes that only few may notice – death no longer occurs, and as such people no longer warrant safety as first priority, further emphasising the obliteration of a just and fair humanity.

Australian politics are also touched upon in the play as the leader of this imagined world instigates new rules in an attempt to restore balance and peace. He raises the pension age to 100, and instead treats the absence of death as a blessing to humanity, despite the negative outcomes that have transpired. Call it cruel irony or perfect timing – it’s quite clear that this play doesn’t agree with the new budget (like many of us), presenting a satirical view that is not only funny, but quite frank and blatantly honest within its own right. You might even say that this particular scene alone alludes to future happenings within our own communities, foreshadowing the message that if things continue the way they are, eventually we will become this imagined world – individuals struggling to keep up with the government, so much that the only thing better than life is the pure bliss taste of death and an end to our ultimate suffering.

While the visual puppetry and unique plot transform this play into a theatrical catharsis, the major highlight is the sounds heard throughout, especially the backing soundtrack and music. The piano accordion that resonates throughout the play sets the mood of each scene – with loud, boisterous upbeat music played during the funny moments while quieter notes pervade the darker and more intimate sections. The simple backing music of breathing was a focal point in itself – the gasping and wheezing tones enhanced tension in the audience as the exaggerated puppetry depicted vignettes of conflict and discord. The leader is caught liaising with mafia groups to get rid of decaying bodies, while business moguls attempt to make money out of the misfortunate. The crisp, didactic sound of people (shown as bread) being cremated against their will emphasises the seamless transition of a happy civilization to a competitive one. Allegiances and friendship are a social stigma; it’s now become survival of the fittest. Those that cannot compete are simply discarded and thrown away without a trace, never to be seen again.

With that said, free will is the major theme consistent in Death at Intervals, posing the question of whether or not we actually do have the ability to control our destiny. Examining a plethora of themes including religion, love and politics, the entire play is an antithesis on immortality and those that watch it are guaranteed to have their views changed by the end of it.

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