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Review: When You Pass Over My Tomb (Arcola Theatre)

Review by Sophie Wilby


After the success of their previous award-winning productions, Thebes Land and The Rage of Narcissus, writer Sergio Blanco and adapter and director Daniel Goldman return to the Arcola theatre to answer a (probably) previously unasked question: “is there a difference between donating your body to science and donating it to someone who might find pleasure in it”? 


A play in which a man chooses to bequeath his body to a necrophiliac is perhaps not the typical romance story you might choose to watch just a few days before Valentine’s Day, but it is truly a testament to Sergio’s writing that I found myself almost rooting for the unconventional romance. Perhaps romance really is dead.

Sergio labels his work as autofiction, describing “plays in which I combine facts from my life with facts that I make up”. The nature of this style makes When You Pass Over My Tomb a play that blurs Sergio’s own truth and reality with lies and fiction. Such transgressions of the gap between real and not real exist for the play’s cast as well. Al Nedjari, Charlie MacGechan, and Danny Scheinmann each play a fictionalised ghost version of their true selves, as well as their characters of Sergio, Khaled, and Doctor Godwin respectively. It is a referential narrative world in which Al Nedjari can feasibly mention both his time on Coronation Street in the 90s and his own imagined death during a shark attack, the fictionalised precursor to his return in ghost form in this play.


The boundary between the audience and the actors is similarly blurred. Each actor takes turns to sit as one of the audience, while the audience themselves become a character for Sergio. As the story unfolds, the play is seemingly being rewritten before the audience’s eyes as characters make direct addresses to the tech box and operator. The experience of watching it was like having narrative whiplash - being drawn into the story of Sergio, Khaled, and Doctor Godwin in one moment before being taken out of it the next. 

Dizzying metafiction aside, for the most part this narrative style made for an enjoyable and engaging watch. The pitfalls of the style were revealed primarily when the self-referentiality teetered into indulgence. Anecdotes from the writer’s previous work relied on a deep knowledge of his works and the sporadic laughter in these moments made me feel like I was not the only one who was missing some of the humour here. Perhaps the play does expect a little too much homework for its audience.


Despite these missed instances of humour, the play can easily be described as darkly comic. With death and taboo at the heart of the play, it would be easy for it to feel sombre. However, Sergio retains a relatively consistent light tone throughout and the one real moment of sadness, though it lands, does feel somewhat out of place. It is certainly not a grave affair. 

The boundary-blurring of the autofiction style is mirrored in the story itself. At the centre of the play is an interrogation of the gap between the acceptable and the taboo - between risque lust and outright perversion. It challenges us, as an audience, to invest in a relationship that would normally be repulsive - one of a necrophiliac and a corpse. But it also challenges us by asking us to accept Sergio’s chosen death - assisted suicide - without giving insights into his reason. He is not suffering from an illness, he is not a particularly tragic figure who we may be able to find sympathy for. He has simply chosen to die. The character of Sergio is a kind of anti-hero. His death is framed as a sacrifice to become what Khaled needs him to be - a corpse. And how Sergio finds the beauty in this decision is masterful. 


If the story of the play can be described as blurry, then so too can the staging. The stage at the intimate Arcola theatre was a small one, set in a round. Nothing on the stage reflected the three cities in which the show was set - Geneva, Paris, and London but with Sergio’s narration of the story, it didn’t need to. Fake grass covered the bottom of a raised circular platform before spilling outwardly from it thus blurring the line between the audience and the stage itself. And we know this is intentional because it’s explained to us by the character of Sergio himself. More subtle nods to the story were brought out by set designer Malena Arcucci, such as the use of dark wood tones and white silk on the chairs used on stage which is reminiscent of the coffin design discussed by Sergio in the play.

 To compliment the simplistic staging, the main lighting feature of a rectangle split into five squares reminded me of a roll of film - whether intentional or not, it felt to me reflective of the nature of the play as snapshots of the interactions Sergio has with Khaled and Doctor Godwin. 


And with this simple and close staging, there was nowhere for the actors to hide - nothing to detract the audience's focus from them alone. Facing this added pressure, Al Nedjari (ghost of Al/Sergio), Charlie MacGechan (ghost of Charlie/Khaled), and Danny Scheinmann (ghost of Danny/Doctor Godwin) all delivered solid and natural performances - mostly flitting between their two characters with ease and relative distinction whilst reframing from being over the top. Of the three, however, the particularly noteworthy performance was Charlie’s performance. Through subtle changes in his eyes alone, he clearly flits from a cold, detached Khaled to the friendly and almost cheeky character of his own ghost. 


This play is one where, upon reading the description, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It certainly wasn’t a play that I was dying to see, but it is one that I am very glad to have seen. It is truly unlike anything I have seen before and I would definitely see a Sergio Blanco play in the future. While perhaps it isn’t a play I feel that I need to see again, it is one I would recommend for anyone interested in something a little different. 

When You Pass Over My Tomb plays at the Arcola Theatre until March 2nd

Photos by Alex Brenner


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