Trevor T Smith was a familiar figure on the Royal Mile in August, meandering through the Fringe Festival hooplah in character as an elderly man who was no longer himself, trailed by a protective woman (his wife, I believe) who explained the purpose of his appearance and one-man play, An Evening With Dementia. (See a photo here; I could never snap one for myself, feeling like a creep.) It was always a jolt, after eeling through crowds surrounding crudely boisterous street entertainment and politely taking flyer after flyer from eager young things desperately trying for a smile and hopefully another ass in a seat, to be confronted by a figure of senility wearing a sandwich board. Before making out what kind of show he was advertising, mental inertia filled in the details: some edgy thing self-consciously pushing the boundaries of good taste, mocking basic human compassion?
Far from it. Smith brought a little genuine humanity to the crass anything-for-attention stretch of the Fringe, along with as many or more laughs than most of the straight comedy shows on offer.
The concept is simple, and elevates his advertising campaign to a sort of performance art by tying it in with a line about nursing home escapees found hours later wandering on the high street. A former actor, who assures us that while he does have dementia, he certainly doesn’t suffer from it, mentally talks over the footlights as he once did as a Shakespearean orator and pantomime player. The life of an elderly resident of a nursing home is not without its compelling challenges and contentments, to his mind, despite regular humiliations – politely ignored – and bouts of depression; as much a crapshoot of luck and attitude as any stage of life, one could conclude.
Though the most unreliable of narrators, Smith keeps faithfully to the first-person perspective and offers many beautiful moments couched amongst midst of confusion and shame. My favorite is his recollection of holding an infant (most likely a grandchild or even great-grandchild after its christening) while a huge gathering of family takes pictures of them, the singular connection he feels suddenly as they hold each others’ gaze, “with not a memory between us.”
The topics of his monologue sometimes range outside the boundary of dementia’s fog to a larger disconnection. A defense of social workers, most likely referencing the Baby P tragedy, calls out those who are still able to connect with the larger world and choose not to, leaving overworked civil servants fruitlessly trying to fill in for all that blocked empathy and taking the blame for society’s failures. He tells us that he once knew the names of every child in his neighborhood, because people socialised across familial limits; now, he dreads visits, and his primary rule for keeping the little freedom he still has is to never use a person’s name, even when he’s sure he knows it. I don’t know the names of the people in our building or speak to their children for fear of being seen as a potential pedophile – am I that much better off?
Smith’s show embodies the emotional dichotomy of hoping your loved one is still inside this poor worn body. I’ll admit that my first sight of Smith on the Royal Mile upset me, even though I’d already mentally noted the show as one I wanted to see. My grandmother had been recently confined to a care home with dementia as well as rapidly declining physical health, and that was who I saw in the street. It hurt, almost physically, thinking of her so lost, even knowing she was getting the best possible care. As mentioned previously, she died not many days later.
When she first moved into the care home, she despised it, and spent the first several weeks trying to escape. This mild, sweet, but iron-cored woman transcended her mental labyrinth several times to set off the fire alarm so that the key-code door would automatically open and dashed through. She somehow flung small furniture through windows and tried to jump, foiled by her worn body and the very fast attendants. We wondered if she had secretly been Wonder Woman in her younger days, while worrying for her safety (and the attendants’ misery).
An Evening With Dementia had much the same feel. It was a relief to peek behind the character so often seen lost and vacant-faced amid festival crowds, to hear from the strong personality still fighting against his trials, still living. How wonderful, and how awful, that the ember is trapped within and slowly going out. This evening will stay with me.