I had a brief conversation at the interval that continued after the show about science fiction in the theatre. This was after I had remarked online how rare it was to see this genre on stage in reference to Between Solar Systems at The Blue Room. The person enthused, “Well, that’s two in a week.” In some ways he is right about Memento Mori – it does have that classic “scientist goes mad in pursuit of revolutionary discovery/invention that he cannot control” story arc that powers everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to movies like The Fly. In this case not the elixir of immortality but manipulating human DNA (I think) to double humankind’s lifespan. However, writer and lead actor Rupert Williamson appeared to have a much more mythic spin in mind.
The title itself is taken from an ancient Roman tradition and the multitude of references to the first great literary epic, Gilgamesh, and indeed the name of one of the characters (Ninsun - Gilgamesh’s mother) laid out the framework for the story.
Williamson’s scientist Leo is driven to crack the secret to enhancing the human lifespan. In this he is assisted by fellow scientist Damian (Ritwik Ballal) and research assistant Zoe (Kate Hotchkin) with another scientist Thomas (Giacomo Groppoli) seemingly more interested in partying than actual scientific breakthroughs. But progress has been slow and their benefactor has recently passed away meaning the program comes under the razor gang gaze of Jade (Sally Clune) who demands results or she will shut them down.
Meanwhile Leo’s partner, a doctor, Claire (Nina Heymanson) helps her father Harold (Tim Lorian) move into a retirement home while struggling with Leo’s growing obsession with work. A colleague of Leo’s, an esteemed academic (Xavier Sweeney), deteriorates before our eyes as his brain becomes enfeebled by an unnamed condition.
Then there’s the robed Ninsun (Allegra Di Francesco) - beautiful, ethereal and disquieting - who periodically comes to Leo and talks to him of time and death. Leo becomes more frantic as his arc moves from driven to obsessive to, ultimately, madness and desperation.
There was much to like about this play – the scope of the ambition in the script; solid acting; and it was well-staged and presented within the large space. Sweeney and Lorian excel playing significantly older characters as both exhibit the signs of ‘decay’ that comes from old age or disease. Heymanson provides a grounded foil - a voice of reason - as Leo’s behaviour spirals out of control while Hotchkin added a little sparkle as the research assistant.
The play didn’t quite work for me, however, and this centres predominantly around two characters – Leo and Ninsun.
Williamson’s Leo is problematic because I never understood the drive that blossomed into fully blown obsession and worse. Leo quotes the fact that man is the only animal that knows it will die and this becomes his motivation to create a serum to increase the human lifespan. It’s a little abstract and more of an intellectual position than a compelling reason for a protagonist to act so brazenly. This meant I struggled to find an emotional connection to the character and Williamson plays him in the first act as closely guarded and aloof. Yes, he conveys the physical and mental deterioration with increasing force during the second act but in many ways this is an impenetrable character positioned as the modern embodiment of Gilgamesh, a myth. Indeed it’s Claire who brings a richer emotional landscape especially in the scenes she has with her father. I needed a better catalyst for Leo’s quest. I needed something tangible.
Which brings us to Ninsun - I thought I had found that catalyst towards the end of the first act when she comes to Leo like a spectre of impending death. Ah, he is in some way afflicted and this is the cause of his urgency I assumed. Yet we soon discover that the silent spirit is something else (though I was never sure exactly what) as she is given voice in the second act and is either – his presumably deceased mother (who removed all the clocks when he was young); Gilgamesh’s actual mother as she hints at an inhuman lifespan; or simply a voice in his head that reinforces his fear of death. This lack of clarity about whom and what Ninsun was robbed the character of potency. There was even a false beat in hindsight when she appeared briefly in a scene without Leo present (the academic’s faltering lecture) that contradicts subsequent interpretations of her nature.
Those issues aside this was an ambitious production and first time script by Williamson as playwright. Director Ben Thomas makes full use of the deep Dolphin Theatre stage though it did feel a little one paced. Perhaps the second act needed to accelerate and get a little crazier as Leo’s descent into physical and mental torment deepened. This UWA arts student dropout found some of the technical jargon a little highfalutin’ but the gist of what was being attempted was easy to follow. The play had a clear thematic intent and was thoughtful in how it tackled the issues of mortality and the elusive nature of time as our lives progress.
Directed by Ben Thomas, Written by Rupert Williamson, and starring Williamson, Nina Heymanson, Ritwik Ballal, Kate Hotchkin, Giacomo Groppoli, Xavier Sweeney, Sally Clune, Tim Lorian, Allegra Di Francesco, Clare McMath and Jess Baldock, Memento Mori is on at the Dolphin Theatre, UWA until 26 September.