Review by Harry Bower
Content warning: This review and show mentions an account of rape and descriptions of dead bodies.
There is a sense of hold-your-breath about sitting in an auditorium welcoming to the stage a solo performer. It’s a feeling akin to watching a gymnast approach a balance beam. Everything set to unfold in the next few minutes is entirely down to that one person, their confidence, and their ability to deliver on what it is they’ve promised. To get there often relies on some remarkable and brave vulnerability. No more is this sentiment embodied than in the performance of Alexandra Donnachie in When We Died, a VAULT Festival 2020 success story completing a fresh tour in April 2023.
This hour-long account of one woman’s trauma jerks back and forth between present day and flashbacks to encounters with her rapist who now lays dead on a slab in front of her eyes. An embalmer with a passion for her work, Rachel is at work just like any other day. But today will be different. Today she is forced to confront the thing which has shaped every day of her life since it happened. Through the prism of a therapy session Rachel talks the audience through each encounter and the rape itself. The narrative hinges on Rachel’s insistence that she will finally confront the perpetrator’s wife, revealing her truth. Does she need to offload the weight of it all to overcome the adversity? How do you even begin to contemplate moving on after such a violation? And what happens when the trauma you are dealing with infiltrates work – the one place you felt you could bury yourself in to escape?
These are all questions explored in the piece with sensitivity and class. Rape is a topic of huge emotional weight and while this piece is not autobiographical, the writer (also Donnachie) has crafted a piece which simultaneously offers insight into the unimaginable while remaining controlled and gentle. Thankfully the show avoids stereotypes – the piece informed by the author’s work with Serenity, a sexual assault referral centre in Northampton. That influence crafts a comfortable and safe space for the audience to explore their own thoughts and reactions to the themes being laid out in the space.
The performance itself is peppered with some intricate physical theatre, Donnachie’s body twisting and flexing to depict the embalming process. Strangely educational, this intermittent and detailed factual instruction adds to the clinical nature of the set, with white flooring and stark LED light poles. It combines in stark contrast – a cold and direct style of storytelling versus the intimate emotion and feeling exuding from the character at the centre of it all, trying to make sense of her own story.
Donnachie owns this text. Her performance is measured and calculated – the delivery of every word and phrase has the perfect inflection for the moment accompanied by a fleeting glance, and a delicate smattering of comic timing providing the gentle humour which accompanies the drama of the piece and allows us a wry smile in-between heart wrenching scenes of emotional conflict. She has a nervous energy about her on-stage; to be clear not nervous as an actor, but the character she has crafted. You can see how uncomfortable Rachel is talking about such personal experiences. It feels as though this performance is tailored to those in the room exclusively – like it’s specifically us who are being allowed to peek behind the stone curtain which has been up for so long.
There were some technical issues on the night such as a recurring cable buzz which spoiled some of the otherwise excellent original soundtrack – it is remarkable that Donnachie managed to work through this and still deliver such a well-rounded performance. The lighting too was sadly uneven, with the performer’s movement frequently taking place in darkened patches making it sometimes difficult to see facial expressions. Far from it appearing as though this is by design, it detracted from the performance.
When We Died is a an hourlong reflective journey which manages to be both poignant and thought-provoking. Victim empowerment, the unacceptable danger women face when out alone at night, the injustice of perpetrators getting away without punishment, the pushing away of family and friends – these are all topics tackled to varying degrees of intensity, always with sharp writing and a raw emotional delivery. Alexandra Donnachie gives an evocative and empathetic representation of a fictional story which, depressingly, will feel very real to many in the audience. It is testament to the talent of Donnachie and the strength of the ending that we don’t leave feeling void of hope. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
When We Died played at Greenwich Theatre on 01 April. It is on tour and finishes on 06 April 2023 in Corby. More info and tickets available here: https://www.thecorecorby.com/whats-on/when-we-died/
Photos by Ali Wright