Dementia is sometimes seen as only affecting the elderly, but there can be very few people in the UK today who don’t know of someone living with the disease, no matter what their age. It’s one of the biggest global health challenges facing our generation, and the most recent figures estimate something like 35m people currently living with the disease, and the number is growing all the time. And early onset dementia, which affects younger people, is increasingly prevalent in people in their 40s and 50s. But when I set out to make this play I didn’t want to just write about a collection of statistics; reading about and talking to people affected by dementia started me thinking about two big questions: What makes you ‘you’? and ‘What makes you love someone?’ And the logical follow-up: if something happens that apparently changes all of that, what then?
Hard, hard questions, and I don’t claim that the play answers them: all it can do is put them out there as something that needs to be talked about. Because dementia and its effects should be talked about, and argued about, without shame or fear. There is currently no cure for the disease, but research is ongoing: one thing increasingly recognised as crucial, however, is that obtaining an early diagnosis can be very useful in helping families to find and access sources of support which might enable people to continue to live enjoyable and fulfilled lives.
All of these are elements inspired Descent, and Playwrights’ Studio Scotland’s continuing support made it possible to complete the writing of the play; Oran Mor staged the first production; and numerous other individuals and organisations offered advice, support and funding to develop the play further for a full Scottish tour. I couldn’t have done it without them. Most importantly, however, in researching the play I talked to many people affected by dementia, including my own family and friends, and the experience was humbling. But it was also immensely inspiring, because the overwhelming message that came out of it was not one of despair, or heartache, or misery, although of course all those things were there: it was one of enduring, defiant love.
Descent is a celebration of that love, and is dedicated to all of the people keeping it alive in the face of this most difficult of challenges.
Working with Linda on Descent has been a really wonderful journey for me as a director, and I’ve gained a huge amount from the process. I feel that we’ve been through so many iterations of the script, it’s a lovely thought that we are finally realising the promise of the original concept.
I met Linda when we were paired together to work on her short piece ‘Safe’ as part of Words, Words, Words at the Traverse. I had recently moved back to Scotland and hardly knew anyone, and was delighted to be offered the chance to work with a writer and actors on a piece that I found very exciting, a bit confusing, but definitely something I wanted to work on. That piece of script made no mention of dementia, and felt like a Beckett short in its strangeness and absurdism, which is what drew me to it. As a complete sucker for anything that sounds remotely musical, I instantly fell for the sense of rhythm that inhabits Linda’s writing. When she told me that she was writing a play about dementia, I have to admit I couldn’t quite see how this mini scene could fit into that story. However, when I read the complete script I was entirely blown away by its unflinching sense of bravery, loss and love, and was also delighted to discover that there was plenty of room in the play for the abstract, the nonlinear, the imaginative.
Since those early drafts, we’ve been through a work in progress performance at the Tron, then the run at Oran Mor and the Traverse, the CATS nominations, and now we’re rehearsing the production for a tour. Every time I have worked on, read or discussed Descent over the last few years, I’ve found something new in it. I find it rare to still be intrigued and inspired by the same play many years into directing it. As an impatient person, there aren’t many pieces of writing I can imagine feeling that way about.