Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Dream of Dying (The Space at Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh Fringe)

We all love a good mystery, and the mystery at the heart of Fake Escape's A Dream of Dying couldn't be more compelling. In 2009, Peter Bergmann washed up on a beach in Ireland. But that was not his real name. He did not live there, and no one ever came to claim him. To this day, he has never been identified, but police pieced together this stranger's final hours by viewing CCTV footage and talking to local residents.

He had bought envelopes that were never posted, given fake addresses to hotels, and dispensed of his worldly belongings in various waste bins dotted across the small seaside town of Sligo. When the body washed ashore, a lengthy investigation began to attempt to identify the stranger.

Sounds fascinating, doesn't it? However, A Dream of Dying does not provide any answers, principally because there are none to give. Bergmann's secrets have never been solved, and so Treasa Nealon's play attempts to imagine what kind of man he was, and what might have led him to this baffling demise.

Nealon has woven an imagined story of what Bergmann might have been like, and ultimately what his thought processes were. Why would anybody choose to die in this way? An enigma, seemingly without loved ones to mourn him? However, of all the scenarios Nealon could dream up, she chooses to go with Mr Average. A man that grows up, falls in love, marries, has kids, has grandkids, and leads a pretty typical, hetero-normative life. So far, so unadventurous. Nealon chooses to make our mystery man as bland as possible by lumping him in with the millions of other suburban everyman figures, which serves to anonymise him even more than he already is.

This could, of course, be the entire point. By making Bergmann an average kind of guy, it makes him easier to imagine, but also fails to serve the production best - when it comes down it, the audience is hoping for some kind of revelation, an insight or discovery, a flash of imagination which helps put meat on the bones of the mystery. This is not forthcoming, and we're left with a pretty average story woven from pretty extraordinary circumstances.

Lawrence Boothman
Lawrence Boothman is a hypnotic performer, however. He's fun, energetic, sweet and endearing, and manages to portray a range of characters with great distinction. He includes the audience in his storytelling, even starting out among them at the back of the room. He occasionally addresses audience members directly, a surefire way of drawing people in, and he does it with great charm, but is never overwhelming. The whole piece is directed creatively by David Shopland.

A Dream of Dying does get you to think about something most people shy away from, however - your own death. Have you ever thought about how you would like to die? Obviously, whoever Peter Bergmann was gave it a great deal of thought, and Nealon's imagined scenario has him essentially taking control of his own destiny. He plans this end from very early in his life, regardless of what direction his life will take.

But we'll never know why, and Nealon certainly doesn't try to answer for us. It's a shame more imagination hasn't been put into bringing the essential mystery of Bergmann alive, rather than concentrating on an average everyman with very few secrets to reveal. This production may well have been exactly what the real Peter Bergmann would want - the mystery still unsolved, his true identity still untold - but it falls short of delivering for an audience which has had its curiosity piqued by a suitably come-hither publicity blurb.

It's interesting that the crowdfunder page for this production says that an autopsy on Bergmann revealed he had been suffering with advanced prostate cancer, multiple bone tumours and several previous heart attacks. If this is made explicit in the play, then it's sadly easy to miss.

The flyer calls the real-life story of Bergmann "unbelievable", and that it is. So it's a pity A Dream of Dying chooses to imagine Bergmann as entirely believable, and somewhat mundane, rather than as the continuing enigma he is.

The stats
Writer: Treasa Nealon
Director: David Shopland
Performer: Lawrence Boothman
Performed at The Space at Surgeon's Hall, Edinburgh, August 5th to 27th, 2016 (not 7th, 14th or 21st). Performance reviewed: August 15th, 2016

A Dream of Dying crowdfunder page (retrieved Aug 18 2016)

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