Breathing Corpses

Jillian Bradbury (Kate) and Steve Gunn (Ben) in Crooked House's production of 'Breathing Corpses' by Laura Wade (August 2009). Pic: Peter Hussey

Jillian Bradbury (Kate) and Steve Gunn (Ben) in Crooked House's production of 'Breathing Corpses' by Laura Wade (August 2009). Pic: Peter Hussey

Niall Moore (Ray), Nick Devlin (Jim) and Cathy White (Elaine) in Crooked House's production of 'Breathing Corpses' by Laura Wade (August 2009). Pic: Peter Hussey

Niall Moore (Ray), Nick Devlin (Jim) and Cathy White (Elaine) in Crooked House's production of 'Breathing Corpses' by Laura Wade (August 2009). Pic: Peter Hussey

There is a brilliant structure to Breathing Corpses. Young English playwright Laura Wade’s 2006 play presents us with what at first seem like disparate and unconnected tales that all feature, at some point, a corpse – but as the drama unfolds we realise that we are watching events that are deeply and tragically connected. Each dramatic vignette is delivered achronologically in terms of the play’s timeline. Thus, every scene makes us reflect back, as an epiphany, on what we’ve already seen, whilst simultaneously allowing us to bring to bear what has gone before on what we are about to see. Breathing Corpses opens with Amy Flemming as a hotel maid called Amy who discovers (not for the first time) a corpse in the bed and room she has been assigned to clean up. The corpse has soiled himself as well as leaving a suicide note which eager and dreamy Amy proceeds to peep into. It’s addressed to an Elaine and contains a reference to discovering the body of a chopped up girl but we are none the wiser as to what all this could mean until much later. Amy Flemming’s impact as the wide-eyed harmless maid is immediately convincing. As such, she sets the tone for the high quality acting throughout.

With the set constructed and deconstructed before us, we next move on to Jim (Nick Devlin) in his storage and repair shop with Ray (Niall Moore). There are guarded references to one of the storage boxes causing Ray, in particular, some unsettling reflections. Nick’s larger than life wife, Elaine (Cathy White) blows into the shop like a breath of fresh air, intruding upon the male bonding. Elaine’s presence is the catalyst that eventually sparks the opening of the mysterious storage box that has been left uncollected for far too long. However, we only see the consequences of revealing the box’s contents two scenes later: Nick has had a full blown nervous breakdown and refuses to ever go into the shop again. Before Nick’s mental collapse is unveiled we are treated to the violent Kate (Jillian Bradbury) and her animal loving boyfriend Ben (Steve Gunn). Reversing the usual idea that men physically abuse women it appears that Kate’s temper and her desire for violence gets the better of her, even in bed with Ben. Submissive Ben turns, though, with fatal results. The last scene returns to Amy the hotel maid again. It appears to be the same scene as the first. A body covered in a bed. Groundhog day. Only this time the body she uncovers is – fatally for Amy – alive.

Each vignette in Breathing Corpses references another but only Jim, as corpse and then alive, actually features in two of the different snapshots. Yet the tales interconnect even if the lives of the characters don’t materially link to one another. In other words, Breathing Corpses wants to suggest that even if we don’t know other people and think that we are all of us self-contained disconnected cells of existence, what appears unconnected is, in reality, deeply interwoven. This, in itself, is a powerful hidden political message.

Credit has to go to director Peter Hussey as he manages to tease out difficult short intense performances from all the cast. Especially memorable is the charming but psychopathic Charlie distilled dangerously with appropriate nervous energy by Keith Burke in the final scene with poor harmless Amy.

Laura Wade’s second play takes its title and theme from a quote by Sophocles which suggests that when a person is unhappy they are like a breathing corpse. All the lives we see in Breathing Corpses exist in a vacuum of emptiness and unhappiness. The old saw that death reinforces life appears to be overturned here in favour of the idea that death merely causes more death. Breathing Corpses is dark but ultimately it affirms the belief that with death all around us our duty is to live with all the vigour we can. Crooked House excellently deliver, with an appropriate cutting edge, Breathing Corpses’ challenging bleakness.

Patrick Brennan is a freelance journalist, critic and lecturer and is currently writing a book on the theatre of Tom Murphy.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Breathing Corpses by Laura Wade

17 - 29 August, 2009

Produced by Crooked House Theatre Company
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Peter Hussey

Designed by Ciaran Aspell

Costume and Props: Kate Connaughton

Music and Sound: Ross Mac Mahon

With: Jill Bradbury, Keith Burke, Nick Devlin, Amy Fleming, Steve Gunn, Niall Moore, Cathy White.