A Good Death brings issues of ageing and terminal illness to life

In this one-woman show, Karen Tan plays a doctor in a hospice, her patients and her father who has dementia.
In this one-woman show, Karen Tan plays a doctor in a hospice, her patients and her father who has dementia. PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN



Esplanade Presents: The Studios

Esplanade Theatre Studio/ Thursday

Towards the end of A Good Death, actress Karen Tan slowly clasps the fingers of one hand around the other. What the audience sees is an emotional farewell between doctor and dying patient, holding hands.

It is one of the more powerful moments in a 90-minute one-woman show shaped around weighty and unspeakable issues.

A Good Death is about ageing, dementia and how families deal with elder-care and terminal illnesses.

It is the opening act of The Studios season at the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, but the third in an inadvertent mini-season of plays on these themes in Singapore.

The month started with Pangdemonium's The Father, which put the audience in the mind of a person with dementia. Last week, Teater Ekamatra explored the burden of caregivers to the elderly in Potong.

In A Good Death, Tan plays a doctor attached to a hospice as well as that doctor's many patients.

There is the older man with cancer who enjoys recounting tales of his prison past.

There is a woman in unspeakable torment from her illness, unable to take joy in anything at all.

There is the question of balancing the hope for a few more days of life through treatment with the very real suffering that treatment may cause the patient.

There are no answers, but articulating the issues is important in a society that venerates age but has no real idea of how to cope with the dying and terminally ill.

A Good Death is written by Faith Ng, best known for her heartfelt schoolyard play Normal (2015), and directed by Chen Yingxuan.

Over a dozen characters are scripted and Tan brings each to life in recognisably different fashion, thanks in part to help from movement coach Lim Chuan Huat.

Still, some scenes would be better off with multiple actors, notably a poignant upset in the doctor's family home.

The doctor's father has dementia and lashes out at the domestic helper in a fit.

Tan's portrayal of the older, confused man is faultless but the breathless tension is broken as she shifts between five characters.

The modular set by Eucien Chia and his assistant Grace Lin works well with Adrian Tan's lighting to transform the Esplanade Theatre Studio into a home or hospital corridor.

Ryan Othniel Seng's sound design adds immeasurably to the scene changes: ventilators rasp in the hospital and white noise hovers on the cusp of hearing to emphasise the plight of the doctor's father, who has dementia.

A Good Death recognises the endless, exhausting cycle of caregiving, of feeding, bathing and caring for loved ones while balancing a career and household chores.

The character of the doctor puts the dilemma succinctly. At home, she mourns the living death of her father, who is no longer the man she knew, but at work, she is able to respect her patients for who they are at that point of time.

She does not see them as diminished by illness, though their families may be uncomfortable with them for that reason.

People must be treated with dignity as well as compassion as they approach the end of their lives.

• A Good Death is sold out.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2018, with the headline A Good Death brings issues of ageing and terminal illness to life. Subscribe