The most obvious fear about dying is the ceasing to exist part but one also has to consider all the preliminaries: will you be seriously ill or injured? Will you be able to stay at home or with family? Will you end up isolated in a care facility? These are the practical fears of dying that have only been exacerbated over recent years with the incredibly deadly COVID-19 outbreak in Victorian aged care facilities that killed hundreds of people in 2020 and the Royal Commission into Aged Care of 2021 that recorded countless instances of abuse and neglect across the country.
Playwright Melissa Bubnic’s own fears and her family’s experience of aged care were the inspiration for Ghosting the Party, a black comedy about the end of life and what it means to leave this world with love, health, and dignity. While the debate about voluntary assisted dying was still working its way around NSW Parliament (it was legalised in mid-May), Grace (Belinda Giblin) sits at home as one of many elderly people who’ve done all the living they want and are ready to get on with dying. Her daughter Dot (Jillian O’Dowd) and granddaughter Suzie (Amy Hack) don’t take her too seriously until she tries to hang herself at home. Now Grace has been moved in with Dot, Suzie’s flown home to Montreal, and so begins Grace’s slow decline, exactly the sort of death she wanted to avoid. Bubnic’s script is whip-smart and morbid, turning an honest, open eye on women’s lives and their deaths, including all the compromises, mistakes, and disappointments they’ve encountered along the way to what they want.
Under the direction of Andrea James, the three women shine as feisty, independent people with airtight dialogue and a roaring pace. O’Dowd’s Dot is a little bit pitiable, a little bit frumpy (think of Murial’s mother from Murial’s Wedding complete with ugly 80s sweater), and even her outpouring love comes off as clingy and a bit naff. Her daughter Suzie is played by Hack as completely the opposite: slick, scoffing, a modern business woman with no time for the downer of family and children. Ruling over them all is Grace who has grown even harder and more unforgiving in her old age. She doesn’t care for niceties or even kindness but the searing one-liners delivered by Giblin were first-rate. There were plenty of jokes about the worst ways to die, the bother of attending multitudinous funerals as you age, and the regret of turning into the type of woman you didn’t want to be but O’Dowd, Giblin, and Hack portrayed their characters with such authenticity and intelligence that you couldn’t help but feel yourself nodding along with their morbid and petty complaints. That, and their three-way comic timing was incredible, more than one joke will catch you unawares.
While together, the three women left each other little room to breathe with constant digs, back-handed compliments, and distantly recalled memories of past snubs, but Bubnic’s script offered glimpses of them each alone, in a different world, that demonstrated their private personal desires better than they could have articulated themselves. Grace, while wobbling on her footstool with a noose in her arms, wants independence and freedom to make her own choices. Suzie clings to her work mentor because she deeply desires someone to look up to who values what she values in herself. And Dot, on a terrible date with a much older Eric (Giblin), is searching for someone to finally return the love that she heaps upon others. So, while death is an inevitability for everyone, Bubnic framed the discussion here through the unique pressures faced by women to couple up, settle down, have children, and be happy with your lot whether it’s what you wanted or not. In a similar way to Brittanie Shipway’s A Letter for Molly, Ghosting the Party considered intergenerational relationships between women in order to examine changing times in terms of greater political and social freedom for women while also seeing how deeply impacted women have been and are by external expectations.
This balance between the personal and political in notions of motherhood and family was additionally represented in the production design. Designer Isabel Hudson drew on nostalgic imagery of cozy florals and lace to create a snug set that doubled as both Dot and Grace’s living rooms. The opening image of Dot and Suzie silhouetted against hanging sheets with a warm glow by lighting designer Verity Hampson moulded a visual echo of the intergenerational tracing and haunting themes linked specifically to the woman’s work of laundry. This was then humorously undercut by the characters’ first conversation about the best ways to die including explicit consideration of bodily (dis)function. For every moment of tender vulnerability, there were two dry-eyed and no nonsense.
Despite the many discoveries made by science, death still comes for us all and it’s high time we prioritise discussion of the practicalities. Bubnic draws literary attention to the theme of dying by punctuating each scene with a quote from across poetry, literature, mythology, and philosophy to acknowledge the long history of people pondering and reasoning around death. These dramatic pauses in which a character recited the line as it was projected across the set were weighty and illustrated the serious undercurrent of Grace’s plight. But with a concerted effort, or even just practise, discussions about death up until our final moments don’t have to be sombre. They can be lively, loving, honest, and, yes, funny.
Ghosting the Party is running at the SBW Stables Theatre from May 20th – June 18th
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