Learning How To Die is Luca Rutherford’s debut show, and it’s a raw one. Raw, because the grief which inspires it is intimate, present and recent. But raw also in the sense of ‘underdone’, or in need of further processing.
On one side of the stage, Luca speaks to us about her father’s terminal cancer. She is literally at home here – she has a large wing-back chair to play with, and she slips easily into the furniture-clambering, chair-arm-perching, loose-limbed sprawling of a child. It is a real pleasure to watch her inhabiting her body, playing with the physical opportunities presented by her props. This is also where her dad is, in the form of his recorded voice. His comments are a true source of warmth and humour in the show, and Luca’s wordless facial responses to him are beautiful, unaffected and moving.
On the other side of the stage, Luca tells us about a close friend, who for some reason is introduced anonymously. The story of ‘She’ is constructed from an accumulation of mundane details, a reportage approach that is intended to crescendo into a shocking dénoument when all that normality is suddenly cut short. This is the newest section of the script, written after a real and tragically unexpected bereavement, and this is also where I could most clearly hear the influence of script advisor Chris Thorpe. The structural technique of ramping up a series of factual observations can be a very effective one, especially when delivered with Chris’s own excoriating energy. I felt that Luca strove towards tension but didn’t quite manage it, so the section relied heavily on the heavy beats of the sound design. I came away thinking that with more time and space, her authentic artistic voice may prove to be quite different from what was shown here.
And it is time and space that is most needed. Luca I think needs more time to find herself within this piece, both physically and vocally. The pacing is uniformly fast throughout, and I found myself longing for some pauses in the words, some andante among the allegro. I also ached for some language that was lyrical to act as counterpoint to all the factual descriptions and statements. This is my bias as a poet, of course, but I do believe that spoken word should have some kinship to the poetic, and this show is very much unleavened prose. I honestly think Luca could lose a lot of the script without losing any of her message, or at the very least go slower and pause more, and in the process gain the space for audience and performer alike to feel her truth more deeply.