STAGE REVIEW: The Death & Life of All of Us @ Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle (18.06.24) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image by Christa Holka

This one man performance from Victor Esses opens intimately, the stage set-up with two microphone stands, a background for film projection, a guitar player (Enrico Aurigemma) and Victor himself on stage, searching the shadows with a headlight torch. What is he searching for? Given the themes of the show he could be searching the past, for secrets and hidden stories within his family background, or seeking his own sense of self and identity.

He speaks directly to the audience and asks us to play a game – it’s a bit like ‘never have I ever’ – and then asks us questions from the general (to get us warmed up) to the more personal – have you ever felt lost and like you didn’t know who you are? He has a gentle and softly spoken manner, and explains that his story is about his aunt Marcelle, her hidden roots and background, and how her changing her identity from the one she was born into gave him hope and a sense of possibility when his identity was forming, and sat outside of the conforms of religion and cultural acceptance that he was born into.

As an Arab Jewish gay man, Victor’s intersecting identities and those of his aunt (born Jewish, converted to Catholicism) might seem very specific; and certainly his aunt’s experiences are tied to place, time, politics and a different generation, however this show is all about the universal experience of being human and finding a space and place for yourself in the world.

The performance has a good pace, and asks questions without providing pat answers. There is space in the story to think about your own experience as well as learn about others – one of the questions we are left with is ‘what stories will people tell about you after you die? Will they be true? Does it matter?’.

The narrative form was a composite of documentary-style film footage, direct address, moments of movement and storytelling, and Esses guides you and brings to light the stories his aunt never shared with her own children. There is captioning throughout and the staging at Alphabetti lends itself to this stripped-back yet complex piece. The music accompaniment is Lebanese guitar sounds – and the film footage shared is of his aunt on a golf course in Italy, from when Victor first met her, aged 19.

He has thought about telling this story many times, and there are issues around consent, and what people choose to share, but Esses wants the piece to challenge secrecy and shame and make his aunt centre stage, as the character that she was, bringing her story into the light but with a sense that there are many things left out. He hopes that we get the essence of her character, of her as a storyteller, and we join Victor’s journey, not just through the story but on stage as a key part of the performance.

The piece ends with a dance, a moment of celebration which goes on too long and becomes uncomfortable and exhausting, we can hear Victor breathing and flagging, but he tells the guitar player “let’s go on, let’s keep going” – a metaphor for his approach to life. If you like autobiographical performances that tackle difficult discussions, then take a chance to see any of Victor’s work.

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