All too often depictions of Alzheimer’s Disease are based around images of a partner crying over the kitchen sink, as the person they love is slowly taken away from them.
For their play Mind Walking, Brighton-based aerial theatre company BandBazi decided to take a different tack.
The production combines trapeze with a story by playwright Tanika Gupta, whose new play The Empress is currently being performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford.
Mind Walking focuses on 76-year-old nursing home inhabitant Bobby, whose consciousness is being drawn back to his Indian childhood, despite turning his back on the country 40 years ago to live in England.
He now only communicates in Gujarati and is able to enter his past through a magical hoop which only he can see – giving the aerial twist to the story.
“The play is a celebration of enduring love between a mature couple,” says director John Binnie.
“I wanted the play to be about how glorious maturer folk are, with Alzheimer’s as a battle that comes unexpectedly and how they rise to its challenge.”
Rather than keeping Bobby rooted in the reality of his 21st century existence, the family decides to go along with his fantasies.
“We are looking at the anarchic and playful side of Alzheimer’s,” says Binnie. “It looks truthfully at those left behind and how difficult it is. But rather than saying, ‘Today’s Monday, you’re 76 years old and you’re living in a Brighton nursing home,’ the family is trying to embrace what he is going through.
“It’s easiest for his grandson (played by Benham Tarrick) who can play act with his grandfather and try to put together what his grandfather’s life was like.”
The company received a grant from the British Council to visit Mumbai when the play was first being developed in 2011. They were able to learn about where Bobby would have grown up, as well as the experiences of Indian immigrants to Britain in the 1970s.
Mind Walking also draws on the cast and crew’s own experiences.
“Philippa [Vafadari, BandBazi’s artistic director] was working in a nursing home when she came across one Iranian man who had spoken English for 50 years, but with the onset of Alzheimer’s started speaking in Farsi,” says Binnie.
“We heard a similar story about someone’s old Polish aunt who started only speaking Polish when she developed Alzheimer’s.
“Once when I was doing a show in Bristol, I met a wonderful old man with Alzheimer’s who was sitting and having a drink in the bar.
“I watched him as he was eating a packet of crisps – he took one big crisp out of the packet and was looking at the shape, putting it by his ear as it was shaped like an ear. He was taking so much interest.
“I work with elderly groups in Scotland and I find they are so wise but also childlike at the same time. They need looking after but if you listen to them they impart such knowledge.”
Playing Bobby, Peter Desouza was able to draw on his own father’s experience as someone who had left Goa and moved to Wales in his 30s.
“He became an actor and married a white woman,” says Binnie. “But he never went back to India or spoke Hindi. When he died, the family knew nothing about his past – he had been trying to acclimatise to become British. When Peter was reading the script he said it was so true to his dad’s story – it’s what attracted him to doing it.”
The aerial elements of the story meant that both the former Shakespearean actor and Brighton-based one-time West End musical star Kate Dyson, who plays Bobby’s wife, had to learn new trapeze skills.
But Binnie wanted to make sure the story came first.
“We didn’t want the trapeze to be gratuitous,” he says. “We wanted it to be an everyday object, so we workshopped how the hoop could represent different things, such as a door, a globe, a chair or even a weight-lifting machine.”
Mind Walking was originally performed in Brighton in 2011 as part of a short tour. Now the company has returned to the piece for a longer national jaunt.
“It’s a real luxury,” says Binnie. “We have made some of the scenes between his grandson and daughter a little longer, and looked at the character of his daughter as we have a new member in the cast – she’s now less angry with her father about never hearing about his past.
“It has been a brilliant project. It’s had a lot of different lives from going out and researching in India and touring there, to the audiences we have been able to reach in the UK. It means BandBazi’s profile is expanding a lot and gives us a lot of opportunities.”
- Brighton Dome Studio Theatre, New Road, Monday, March 25. Starts 7.30pm, £12/£10. Call 01273 709709