SYMBIONT - The Vaults
A semi-autobiographical tribute to life and more importantly, death
Nestled in disused railway arches under Waterloo station are The Vaults - possibly a perfect location for this performance as the trains thunder above us, pulsating with the sound of beating hearts. But this play chooses to discuss what happens when that heart stops beating, because death is inevitable for all of us, yet it is rarely discussed. Do we try and sugarcoat it, soften the blow, so that in the short term, we are less scared? Probably. Patrick Swain looks to change this with SYMBIONT.
Kathryn (Ellie Gallimore) performs as a sort of host in guiding us through the process of death and our historic cultural relationship to it. This often feels like a well-crafted TED Talk as she imparts sombre and sometimes harrowing knowledge. Gallimore is well cast and highly personable in the way she interacts with the audience - completely confident in her delivery. The authority with which she bestows information feels credible and Swain’s script is the foundation for this.
As the play shifts to be a semi-autobiographical story, Gallimore continues to carry the weight of the words exceptionally, as if they were her own. Swain has composed a truly personal text and it forms a wonderful kind of eulogy. This play is at its best when it shares intimate moments, both heartbreaking and joyous, capturing the impossible challenges of terminal illness.
Not all the moments work effectively, however. The more stylised sections add little to the production and seem to work against the personal touch where this play thrives. Though there is some lovely imagery as Gallimore intertwines the hanging sheets from Erin Guan’s design. Kathryn talks early on about how as a society our understanding of death is derived from movies - far from accurate, and SYMBIONT goes some way into dispelling those misconceptions. But I was left wanting it to commit and go further. The production is wonderfully honest throughout though it still feels like it is holding something back. If you want to make us feel uncomfortable or even scared, go for it. Scare us! The fact that this is such a personal story combined with a taboo topic means that there is so more to explore and maybe with a tiny bit of refinement, this show has the potential to leave audiences shaken but re-energised.
In all, this is an admirable production with a top-quality performance supported by a seriously well-devised and genuine script that must be commended. It seemingly leaves you feeling both small and alone but simultaneously connected to those around you. Well worth a visit to The Vaults and I look forward to seeing how this production develops and grows because, as the play says, “Nothing is static. Change is the only constant.”
It runs until 16 July - Tickets
Photographer: Jim Topliss