Dignity in drama

Larner shares an intensely personal experience with his audience. Image: The Pleasance Theatre
Chris Larner wrote and acts in An Instinct for Kindness. Image: The Pleasance Theatre
Chris Larner wrote and acts in one man show, An Instinct for Kindness. Image: The Pleasance Theatre

Actor Chris Larner accompanied his ex-wife Allyson Lee to Switzerland in order to take her own life at Dignitas in November 2010.

An Instinct For Kindness, his one man show about the traumatic experience, begins at The Pleasance Theatre this Wednesday.

The title comes from a kind comment made by a chambermaid at the Swiss hotel after he and Allyson’s sister had returned from the clinic; a gesture that reminded Mr Larner of the human instinct for kindness.

The play has graced stages at the Edinburgh Festival and travelled as far as Mumbai.

After touring the show for a year and a half, he now struggles to recall the impetus for writing the piece and acknowledges that to some people it might seem strange to share such an intensely personal experience with an audience.

“I’ve turned my experiences into something I can both engage with and stand back and look at. So there’s a kind of interesting duality going on but it’s still a bit of a wrench to do it.”

Before taking the show to the Edinburgh 2011 he did two performances which were particularly close to his heart.

One was at the arts centre in Otley where Allyson lived before she died and the other at the college where she taught and where the theatre was renamed the Allyson Lee Memorial Theatre.

Both were extremely well received and they told Mr Larner that Allyson would have approved allaying any fears he had about the show’s taste.

“As I was writing and rehearsing it, I got angry on Allyson’s behalf on the logistical, financial and stressful hoops she had to jump through just to get there. I got angrier and angrier so the sort of draft of the play was full of polemic.

“People rather fear they’re going to come and see a man ranting on stage and in fact it isn’t it’s simply telling the story of Allyson and me and Allyson of the circumstances that led her to take that decision.”

Larner shares an intensely personal experience with his audience. Image: The Pleasance Theatre
Larner shares an intensely personal experience with his audience. Image: The Pleasance Theatre

For many people the idea of reliving the experience every night on stage would seem almost masochistic. Larner recalls the writing process:

“It was emotionally draining to write it and rehearse it because doing that I was having to drag up memories. I knew Allyson for 30 years and to try distill a life and a relationship into 75 minutes of theatre and to go through all that stuff, to go through the experiences of being at Dignitas and her wanting to die was very emotional.”

One of the myths Larner wants to dispel is that the process of going to Dignitas is a relatively easy one. Instead he recalls the expensive and bureaucracy-laden existence with forms to be checked and medical reports and letters to fill in.

“It’s really quite exhausting and it would be exhausting for anybody who is in his or her full state of health but for someone who’s already in the situation where he or she is thinking of ending it all it’s a kind of intolerable level of stress. It certainly was for Allyson it was a real mountain to climb to get there.”

The subject of assisted suicide in this country is still a difficult one and Larner feels that there is a need for more of a debate on the subject.

He believes that we are currently exporting the problem to Switzerland and should the Swiss suddenly decide to close their borders to foreigners wanting to do this, a question they voted on last year, then Britain will have a problem.

“Since we have an ageing demographic and neurological diseases like MS are on the increase the subject is not going to go away,” he says.

There is a symmetry to Larner’s story. He first met Allyson in the 1980s when the pair were acting with Theatre Centre based on Noel Road by the Islington canal, performing in schools in the local area.

An Instinct for Kindness is playing at The Pleasance, Calendonian Road, from 20 – 24 March at 8pm (Sunday at 5pm) Tickets £15 (£10 concessions). Call 02076091800 or visit www.pleasance.co.uk/islington