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Passing On

Passing on...or just PASSING

Claudette Bryanston
Warwick\RSC Fellow in Creativity
November 2008 - June 2009

Collaboration with the Institute of Health at the University of Warwick has enabled the use of rich sources of field research to fuel the making of theatre. It further deepens and validates research undertaken by the Institute as well as enabling dissemination of knowledge beyond the writing of books and papers. As a member of the audience said of our last collaboration:

'It has come out of research but it is a piece of theatre and therefore it has a life of its own'

The process of making theatre though sometimes recorded in writing and film remains elusive beyond the rehearsal rooms. In this instance much of the research needed to create a new play has already happened, so with boxes of transcribed source material from the Institute of Health the first part of the development process of creating a new piece of work from CAPITAL is in place. We are seeking to understand and thus share the process.

I am seeking to make Passing On come to life (no pun intended) through testimony from research into death and dying. With Professor Gillian Hundt and her team from the Institute of Health we have dedicated a brief retreat to understanding the key findings and issues whilst Mike Kenny (playwright) and I are exploring the dramatic potential that the material offers. It is not all gloomy, some is funny, some macabre, and some unbearably sad but like all real stories most is stranger than fiction.

Today in the west most of us die in hospital. Rites and rituals are sanitised both as a result of our secular society and from fighting super bugs. We see the private becoming public; the hospital ward bed is hung with flimsy paper curtains, often all that contains a family and a dying relative, if indeed anyone is there at just the right moment.

We want a good death for ourselves and those that we care about, ridiculously it is the uncertainly of death that causes a lot of problems, if we knew just when it was going to happen we could make sure that we were in familiar surroundings, at home in the hospice or care home. So often the testimony reveals that the plan for dying at home doesn’t work out. The point of entry into hospital is through Accident and Emergency.

Hospitals are geared towards making people better.

The dying person generally moves several times as a ward is found, not really the moment to be carouselling around the hospital.

I have spent most of my theatre making life creating workshops alongside touring productions. Always as this process happens young people (as they usually are young people) inform me in extraordinary and unexpected ways about a production through these workshops. I am therefore facilitating a number of workshops for health care professionals working in palliative and end of life care, which I am sure will not only deepen my knowledge but will also offer opportunities for exploration for the participants, for creative teaching and learning using performance. These are taking place on three alternate Saturdays from 21st March in the CAPITAL studio.

We in the west haven’t necessarily seen someone die. However death is the one absolute shared experience that we will all have. Shakespeare offers us a wonderful picture of Falstaff’s death in Henry V as his circulation failed him and his extremities grew cold and his brain struggled to be cognizant of his surroundings.


Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if
ever man went to Arthur's bosom. 'A made a finer end, and went
away an it had been any christom child; 'a parted ev'n just
between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide; for
after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers,
and smile upon his fingers' end, I knew there was but one way;
for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbl'd of green
fields. 'How now, Sir John!' quoth I 'What, man, be o' good
cheer.' So 'a cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now
I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hop'd
there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet.
So 'a bade me lay more clothes on his feet; I put my hand into
the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I
felt to his knees, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold
as any stone.

Claudette Bryanston lead a research workshop in the CAPITAL Centre on the 16th February with Professor Gillian Hundt from the Institute of Health and Dr Judy Purkis and Dr Anne-Marie Slowther from the Warwick Medical School whose three year research work into End of Life Care is fuelling the preparation for making a new play. Other guests were Peter Glanville, Artistic Director of Little Angel Theatre, Playwright Mike Kenny and Phil Edolls, Designer. The team used a mock up life sized soft body puppet to represent the dying person. This instilled those at the workshop with powerful images that animated the research testimony enriching the theatre making process.


Through an open theatre forum the EOL research team guided the theatre makers through key moments for relatives and health professionals in the last 48 hours of life in old age. The play will tell the story a dying person who enters hospital. In the UK this is nearly 60% of us. The testimony is inevitably sad, at times macbre but also humorous. As a society we are in denial about death, and have little experience.