Radio Play Review: Last Breath

The drama is set in 2018. Assisted suicide has been legalised in the UK.

Ben Fearnside is an abstract expressionist painter. He has had some success with London galleries but his work has now fallen out of fashion. Without an audience his life-work is unwitnessed and ‘uncreated’. He decides to make one final piece of art: he will capture a dying breath in a jar and exhibit it.

Ben invites freelance radio producer Anita Sullivan to profile him and document the process of capturing The Last Breath. But as the date for breath capture approaches, the identity of the donor remains a mystery.

‘The Last Breath’ is a high-concept piece of drama about a high-concept piece of art. It plays with narrative form by blending documentary and drama, using real people and real names with a fictional story. The play asks some big questions: what is art, what should be sacrificed in the name of art… and what is the price of a soul?

The Last Breath was created by Ben Fearnside with Anita Sullivan

Nicky is played by Nicola Walker The interviewees are; Derek and Mo Fearnside, Ben Fletcher, Professor Emma Jones, Anthony Chopper White, Linda Keenan and Dr Mark Gretason. The Static State artists are; Kenny Watson, Alex Allan, Joseph Watts and Robert Perry.

Music was written and performed by Nick Tettersell.

Producer: Karen Rose A Sweet Talk production for BBC Radio 4.

In the tradition of Wyndham, this is a science fiction that does not dwell on the ‘science’, but rather the human impact of the technology which is so carefully obscured. Fearnside’s breath-capturing device is never really explained, in spite of Anita’s interview with a medical physicist, although familiar references to jars and vacuum seals are mentioned in spite of the fact that hopefully the technology would be slightly more sophisticated than a jam jar!

By melding the genres of performance art, documentary and drama, this play manages to ask the obvious questions without ever coming out and saying ‘why?’, or resorting to argument, but rather in the measured tones of Anita’s interviews – which would almost be dull if it were not for the constant wonder of when It will happen and What Anita will do when she realises.

As a criticism, I would say therefore that Ben’s decision to become the last breath donor is obvious – perhaps obvious to anyone who’s heard about performance art or indeed read a piece of fiction. It is then to the credit of the writers that Anita does not break down at the news, or shout at Ben, but instead talk to him in her characteristically stilted manner, as though this conversation were just another interview. Her passive interviews allow us again to ask the questions, and come to our own conclusions about whether or not Ben is courageous or idiotic to go through with his artwork.

Similarly – again – to Wyndham, the technique of having the main action off-stage and instead reported is Anita’s friend Nicky’s voicemails is well-employed. This is something I’ve always enjoyed about Wyndham: action occurs but we do not ever see the meat of it, instead we are given newspaper reports or over-dinner conversations – and Last Breath does this remarkably well. This leaves the listener to ask herself questions and imaging scenes rather than relying on Anita to ask or act them out for her, and red herrings such as Nicky’s phonecalls are constantly included to cloud the issue – as it would be in life. Also, the final scene with Ben at the seaside is sparse and artfully done – there is another red herring in the form of Anita’s obvious affection for the artist and we might find ourselves wondering if they are indeed falling for each other and how another story would have handled this development. Rather than go down the Disney route of ‘love conquering all’ however, perhaps it is more moving that Anita rather lets (assists?) Ben in going through with his suicide rather than fighting him. Or so we assume from Nicky’s message.

Overall, I would say this is a cleverly, if demurely, produced play that benefits from its reluctance to be direct. I can see that this would not be for everyone as it does rather skirt around the issues of either art or suicide, but instead it produces a compelling and neutral exploration of death as art.

 

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