CW: mentions of death, surgery
Like many students at a loose end during the first lockdown, Shaw Worth joined an online yoga class. However, unlike many others, he stayed in that class, and has now written and directed a one-act play, Wednesday, Death Meditation, performed at the BT Studio throughout 4th Week, using yoga as a device to explore issues of mortality and the human condition.
The play has a bipartite structure, centring around a suburban yoga class, followed by a much darker conversation between yoga teacher Sandra (Rosie Owen) and her husband Doug (Michael Yates), the night before a major surgery which will remove his ability to speak. This uncomplicated plot provides Worth with rich opportunities for philosophical musings, with ideas explored in the piece ranging from the abrupt (“do you think sleep is practising for death?”) to the more profound, ruminating on the experience of yoga itself (“when you get to let go of all your crap on the mat…you have to deal with what it might be like to not be you anymore”).
Worth’s script leaves the audience with much to reflect on, but sometimes one wonders if the powerful ideas explored come at the expense of effective characterisation. The opening scene is populated by intriguing yet believable archetypes of yoga class attendees – the over-intellectual Buddhist who tries to take over the running of the class, the renunciation of worldly attachments, the newbie over-exerting an injury – which are initially exploited for their comic potential without detracting from the show’s philosophical ideas. However, these supporting characters are never fully interrogated beyond brief introductory dialogues, and after a point just appear to be mouthpieces for the musings of the writer. This issue is somewhat remedied about two thirds of the way in by the tense confrontation between Sandra and Doug, during which their crotchety relationship and differing approaches as yoga teachers are intimately linked; still, one wishes that Doug’s upcoming surgery, as the central tension of this conversation and of the whole piece, had been introduced slightly earlier on.
Nevertheless, the play is strongest when Worth’s obvious passion for yoga shines through. Through the characters of Sandra and Doug, he articulates clearly two very different types of yoga practitioner: the former a control freak focussed on the physicality of the poses (“you’d set up your body with CCTV if you could”), and the latter a sardonic intellectual who accuses Sandra of being “allergic to insight”. Credit here must also be given to Owen’s acting performance, which fluctuates easily between the confident, didactic demeanour of Sandra during class – here is the familiar yoga teacher, correcting the class’s poses and directing them to feel the fingers and the toes – and her more vulnerable reality at home with her husband. Furthermore, the show’s lighting and sound, designed by Luke Drago, is unsubtle yet emphatic. The stark contrast it produces between scenes of yoga and of speech, particularly Sandra’s closing monologue, serve to highlight how yoga can be both an escape from one’s emotions and something that enhances them.
One wishes some of the ideas could have been integrated with a slightly better-structured plot and stronger characterisation, and hopes for potential future refinement. Nonetheless, Wednesday, Death Meditation clearly centres on a topic that its writer is deeply passionate about and has considered at length, which makes for thought-provoking theatre.