Sharr White’s disorientating look at the illusions and delusions of dementia is intelligent and sophisticated, but engages the brain more than the heart.
A smart set from Jonathan Fensom disorientates as soon as The Other Place’s protagonist, Juliana, first steps onstage. From the Park200’s circle, at least, the stark (almost brutalist) parallel lines have the evasive effect of an optical illusion. As your eyes follow this neurological academic on a journey of anger, bemusement and – eventually – hope, the back wall feels like it’s living, breathing and shifting in size. The effect is startling; an apt representation, perhaps, of Juliana’s own transitory cognitive state. Hidden doors gradually reveal themselves – windows into other worlds, almost, that no one quite expected to be there.
A similar quality (of everything being ‘in flux’) seems imbued in Sharr White’s writing. Scenes blur, blend, fragment and connect – not always ‘tidily’, but then how often is our cognitive behaviour neat? The Other Place‘s USP is its dramatisation of the illusions and delusions of dementia from the perspective of the ‘afflicted’, not that of the loved ones (‘figures of stability’) who surround them. And in doing so, Juliana is presented uncondescendingly – and as a ‘human’ – rather than a simple victim. We watch as the decline in her cognition leads to aggression, even nastiness – but also reveals complex, unresolved traumas from the past that have clearly remained ‘ever-present’ for her.
White’s writing is sophisticated, but engage the brain far more than the heart. Characters, including his protagonist, are trickier to ‘connect’ or emphasise with than I think I want them to be (even if, and I agree, shameless tear-jerkers like Still Alice try too hard the other way…I think there needs to be a balance). Perhaps the problem is there’s rather a lot of them for an 80-minute piece, and not enough time to get to know many. Juliana (a strong and quietly angry performance from Karen Archer) admittedly never leaves the stage – but I wanted to invest in her more emotionally, particularly as we learn about her traumatic past, than the writing somewhat allows.
I have to admit I craved a moment or two, more, where a character let their hair down. Where the production ‘enjoyed’ itself for a moment – but I’m not sure we’re ever quite allowed that. The Other Place intrigues but doesn’t quite ‘grip’ – though it is intelligent, I’m left feeling ‘less’ than I feel I ought to.