Immortal and Privates (4 stars)

Immortal and Privates

One-on-one theatre that moves beyond the end

The Celebration of Death festival at Summerhall aims to both remember the life and work of Ian Smith and present contemporary theatrical and visual art responses to the theme of death. As part of the opening weekend, Immortal and Privates offer the opportunity for an intimate and gentle examination of mortality. Both share a format – one performer and one audience member – but take very different approaches to the relationship between life and death. Yet the atmosphere that they create, and the meditative pace, allows a deeply personal experience.

Immortal imitates the structure of the Catholic confession, as an invisible performer questions the audience member on matters of morality, hope and the afterlife. The open-ended questions refuse to present any particular religious perspective, evoking more general themes of personal immortality against the impact of death on those left behind. The performer is a gentle prompt, encouraging the audience to examine its own feelings and ideas through long silences and a measured emotional tone. Thanks to the contemplative approach, Immortal is neither morbid nor pessimistic, viewing death as part of life but also asking questions about how it frames the process of living.

Privates has a more immediate narrative: through a pre-recorded speech, it reveals a story of parental love and how the dead can remain a presence to the living. Hidden away in a prepared room, which suggests both therapy clinic and picnics on the banks of a loch, the audience member is invited to listen and relax, following a woman's reflections on her mother's influence and kindness. Periods of silence and the flickering of candles, however, conjure up a place for reflection and, in the final moments, the audience is left to its own memories.

Set alongside the festival's various exhibitions, the performances focus on the connection between life and death, and how death lends meaning to existence. In terms of the festival's themes, and as works in their own right, Immortal and Privates reflect on Ian Smith's belief in art as a vehicle for the communication of ideas in a format that stimulates emotionally and intellectually.

Eschewing the drama of theatre for a subtle and personal experience, Immortal and Privates reveal the potential of performance not as a community-led event, but a reflective, serene and spiritual process. The generosity of the performers, and the emphasis on the comfort of the environment, ensure that the confrontation with death is respectful, thoughtful and optimistic.

Festival of Ian Smith: Celebration of Death runs at Summerhall, Edinburgh, until Fri 23 Dec.

A Festival of Ian Smith

A tribute to the late Ian Smith, director of Glasgow's Mischief La-Bas, who died in 2014. The project brings together a series of music, art and performance that challenge, confront or celebrate our difficult relationship with death.

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