Assisted Suicide: The Musical
Review by Eleanor Lisney
*Spoiler warning—details about the songs and scenes in the musical are discussed.
**Above photo credit: Rob Anderson
It is admittedly an odd title. A musical about assisted suicide?!? The description of the musical from the Southbank Centre is well worth a visit. There is a short 2-minute video (audio described and subtitled) with Liz Carr giving her reasons for the show herself. Some of my friends raised their eyebrows when I said I was excited to get a ticket to see the fabulous Liz Carr performing in that spectacle. Even more wonderful is that I would be joined by a few new Canadian friends who would discuss the show with me over a bite later in the evening to give me a North American take on it. After all, I am writing this review for Alice Wong and the Disability Visibility Project based in the US.
I find the show is imbued with the character of Liz Carr herself – her acerbic wit, her passion, ingenuity, anger, compassion and dare I say, vulnerability, shone through. She is well known for playing forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery on the BBC drama Silent Witness, a regular in the comedy line-up Abnormally Funny People, and previous co-host of BBC Ouch! She is also a campaigner at Not Dead Yet, an international network of disabled people opposed to the legalisation of assisted suicide.
This show is Liz Carr’s satirical and musical musings on the issue of assisted suicide, ‘a TedX Talk with show tunes,’ Well, it is a bit more than that. There were quite a few rousing songs. In particular, I thought the song ‘Put me down in the name of love’ was superb satire, a pastiche of the romantic song genre sang in duet in all musicals (think ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story for example) but the lyrics are so subversive, the tenet of the song is to ask the partner to promise assisted suicide in the event of needing it – to ‘put me down’ unimaginably the substance of a conventional love song. The reference here is, of course, to the film, Me Before You, supposedly the glamorous romantic tearjerker where the disabled man in the lead role finds the love of a beautiful and caring woman as not enough for him to continue living. He decided that he cannot manage to accept himself as a ghost of the previous active, hedonistic young man he was and decides to end his life.
The Suicide Tourist song was hilarious, knowing of Liz’s own Euthanasia Road Trip documented on BBC World Service, I loved the lines ‘Dying abroad is all the rage but Switzerland is the only place that will take foreigners,’ This song gives a list of countries where assisted suicide/dying is permitted and the flags are waved – Canada has passed laws allowing doctor assisted dying in June this year. My Canadian friends told me after the show that this was the one time they did not feel proud to see their flag.
As one of her fellow campaigners outside the House of Commons and elsewhere, I appreciated her question: When does the ‘right to die’ become ‘the duty to die’? The song with the ‘Pope’ addresses the criticism that campaigners are in cahoots with Christian fundamentalists was great – fab song. However the exchange with the pro assisted suicide supporter on stage did not work so well for me. This reminds me too well of many debates I have and continue to have with people, even disabled activists, that it is selfish to refuse assistance to people who want to die. There is no easy answer.
The sketch of rebranding Assisted Suicide was very clever and knowing that it was a real exercise does not deflect from the truth – the campaign for Assisted Suicide (AS) is very well funded and slick. .There is a scene with flip charts, marker pens, and PR specialists trying to come up with the catchphrase to make suicide palatable. They come with: ‘Society is off the hook…I choose it as my free will and I’ll be brave,’ The idea linking freedom and choice with AS is sown.
I have to mention Palliative Claire as well. She does a number as a ‘carer’ in a very suggestive manner which challenges the normal stereotypes linked with palliative care. It is one of those unexpected surprises, except I should not be surprised, knowing Liz’s repertoire in cabarets at the Royal Festival Hall. The bit that brought me close to tears, however, was the finale where Liz sang in a poignant duet with herself (on a flat screen tv), her dark side, I think she called it. This catches me there because it is so close to my own dark dreams where suicide can be so seductive because of fears of the future, of the present in dealing with disability, the pain, the loneliness and being left behind. She sang, ‘Don’t open the door. Can I trust you/ me with the key…a willing volunteer…’
At dinner after the show, in discussion, one of my Canadian friends pointed out the lack of diversity in the cast. Diversity, in this case, to mean colour. I did not realise it myself. However, as a black friend of mine remarked, the whole notion of dignity in dying and the right to die, assisted suicide is very much a first world issue. Globally, people, disabled and non-disabled, are fighting to survive, the right to live, not the right to die.
For me, the show affirms positively what I feel about assisted suicide, it was clever, witty and entertaining. I think it deserves to be more widely seen by those who campaign against and those who campaign for assisted suicide. I hope it takes the debate away from the personal emotional narratives to reflect on the nuances.
Eleanor Lisney is a founder member and coordinator of Sisters of Frida, a disabled women’s collective in the UK. She is an access advisor, a National Union of Journalists’ member on the New Media Industrial Council and the Equality Council. She is also on the British Council Disability Advisory Panel and the web team of the International Network of Women with Disabilities.