When We Died, Vault Festival

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Review by Melinda Haunton

I’m not sure a monologue by an assault survivor who works as a mortician will have tickled the palates of everyone at Vault this weekend. When We Died is anything but escapist. But it’s a truly impressive piece of work that deserves to be seen again. With a stripped down set (white on black, a couple of uprights providing side lighting) and a stripped down costume (black, basic, barefoot – the vulnerability of those bare feet came to haunt me during the production) there’s really nowhere for Alexandra Donnachie’s play to hide. I’m glad to say, it doesn’t need to.

Playwright Donnachie also stars as Rachel, our mortician, a warm, dedicated professional who knows slightly more than you may be comfortable with about what happens immediately after we die. If you don’t like the idea of embalming fluid, this will be squeamish viewing. But Rachel shows the caring, humane side of this last encounter with the dead. Until she’s confronted with the body of Him. Who assaulted her a year back. His body is now in her hands.

Sexual assault is often a subject for drama, and it’s rarely well handled. When We Died does everything possible to move away from exploitative takes, not least in providing a quiet space and links to support for the audience afterwards, if needed. The assault isn’t described. What Rachel does is sketch in the people, the social circumstances, and the behavioural norms that made this assault possible, and its enduring impact on her, and those around her. When We Die is brilliant on what we say, don’t say, are scared to say, and choose not to say. As writer and performer, Donnachie is constantly thinking about audience, whether the characters in her fiction or us in the room. She doesn’t just project – you can see her words land, too, often with invisible people.

She makes this a brilliantly physical production, always in motion, flashback to flashforward, speaking directly to us, patting her own arm affectionately, showing us the mortician’s practice by gesture, and twisting herself into knots as the agony of remembered assault overcomes her. Those bare feet never stop moving. Donnachie is at once very alone on her bare stage, and constantly surrounded. The contrast with the invisible, immobile corpse of her assailant is real.

And although it’s careful and sensitive in approach, this is far from po-faced. Rachel’s life before the assault has plenty to make you smile. Afterwards, well. “Fuck me, it’s hard work being this miserable,” she says, and you can’t help but laugh. And when her morticianly discretion allows her to choose a *slightly* more damaging technique for closing her attacker’s eyes there’s a definite hiss of satisfaction from the audience. I wrote I HOPE SHE KILLED HIM in my notes at one point. Which misses the message of this piece – it’s not about Him at all. But it shows just how intensely I was inhabiting the story.

Despite the tough themes, and the morbid focus in a week I would have opted for plays about happy puppies for preference, I left uplifted, glad to have seen this. I hope many more people get the chance.

When We Died ran at Vault festival 10-15 March 2020

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