Here’s my journal of 16-20th August 2022 at the Edinburgh festivals. The shows are back with ‘in person’ audiences and the place is buzzing. Meanwhile, I’m in a dual state of excitement and trepidation.
The reason? 16th August will see the premiere of my first play: Cicely and David. It tells the story of a Polish migrant, David Tasma, who is dying from cancer in post-war London, estranged from home and family. A brief, intense relationship with his social worker, Cicely Saunders, helps him to find some resolution to what he feels has been a worthless life. In the process, an idea is born that later changes the face of modern end of life care.
The journey of the play from ‘page to stage’ has been peppered with great people and enthusiastic collaborators. Together, we have gone through the gamut of detailed preparations and demanding logistics involved in bringing a show to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Now everything is to play for. Literally.
Maybe I will see you at one of the performances? Saturday is sold out, but there are some tickets on the remaining days.
You can follow events ‘live’ each day here, so please keep in touch.
Tuesday 16th August
The cast and crew are using up final precious moments to rehearse their bows and acknowledgements. I’m sitting in the fifth row back, more nervous than I can remember in a long time.
The directors declare we are ready to go.
The space is cleared, the house lights go up and the audience begins filing in, quickly filling up the small auditorium.
The doors close and we are off.
It’s the culmination of a long held dream: to write a play about the founder of the modern hospice movement, Cicely Saunders. The stage is lit, gentle piano music drifts in. It’s happening.
I’m struggling here to capture the next 60 minutes. A team of drama students have combined their efforts to stage my play, interpreting it through youthful imagination, and with no prior assumptions about the phenomenon of palliative care.
I’m thrilled by the result. The production brings movement, drama, humour, sorrow and hope to my words on the page. I am listening hard and watching intently to what is happening on stage. But I also have an antenna out for the audience reaction. Like me, they seem caught in the moment and held by the performance.
When the end comes the applause ring out and there are cheers. The house lights come back on and I see tears being wiped away. My 13 year old daughter turns to me and gives the ultimate accolade: ‘Dad, it was much better than I thought it would be’.
Wednesday 17th August
Today I walk to the venue feeling calmer and more at ease. On Heriot Row, I pause for a moment at the elegant town house where Robert Louis Stevenson once lived. That great writer who was no stranger to illness and who died aged 44.
At the venue, the directors again guide the cast through the choreography of the final scene. One of the actors spends time alone on the set, getting into role and checking movements, here and there. The support team are content. Yesterday the logistics worked for them and there was praise for the attractive programme and the sprig of rosemary inside it – a reference to the opening scene in the play (the remembrance herb).
With everything ready to go, the production crew have tested the props and lights and seem relaxed, even breaking into a quiet song in the minutes before the audience arrive.
Onstage the action flows beautifully. I pick up on slight changes from yesterday. Here and there a line is given a little more time, greater urgency, or a stronger hint of irony. I guess this is the peculiar treat for the playwright, to hear the script breathing, unfolding and subtly changing from one performance to another.
The audience contains familiar faces. There are people here who know a great deal about hospice and palliative care. I pick up on nods and gentle nudges where reference is made to some clinical issue, some hospice concept, or the work of a palliative care pioneer.
The story of Cicely and David contains a fair bit of information. I’ve sometimes worried if my rendition is too didactic. So it’s reassuring in the evening to read on Twitter the words of a medical student from the Philippines who has been at today’s performance and who even quotes a line from it:
Couldn’t hold back tears while watching ‘Cicely and David’ at #EdinburghFringe
I was reminded of the immense privilege we doctors and nurses have to be with our patients in their final moments.
‘Hospice is a way of doing rather than a physical place’
Thursday 18th August
An hour before the play is due to begin, all tickets are sold. The crew have a settled air about them and there is banter and smiles in anticipation of today’s performance.
In my seat I seem to be surrounded by palliative care experts. The person next to me is a doctor who trained at St Christopher’s Hospice. Once again I spot people who have come from a great distance.
We have seen that the emotional content of the play is having a marked effect on some in the audience. Not everyone who comes works in hospice. So in her opening welcome our producer, Jo Hockley, draws attention to this and lets people know that she and a couple of people from the Marie Curie organisation are around after the show, if anyone feels the need to talk.
The play begins and on this third performance is reaching a new level. The whole cast seem to give more space to their lines. It’s in those spaces that we the audience find greater depth and meaning. Each actor has a palpable relationship with us as well as the other characters in the play. When the play ends no one in the audience moves for at least a minute.
There is huge warmth in the room afterwards, and once again I talk to proud parents, delighted with what their sons and daughters are achieving with David and Cicely. As one of our undergraduate directors said to me: ‘we set out to tell the story of palliative care, and that is what’s happening’.
Late in the evening I spot our first review. You can find it here (just scroll down, the shows are in alphabetical order). It’s a great boost to our efforts.
The comments on social media are also coming thick and fast now. This was my favourite of the day:
Friday 19th August
The rail strike hasn’t affected attendance at the play. We are sold out. As they file in, I spot a couple of retired people who I know worked with Cicely Saunders, but in the main the audience looks younger and unfamiliar to me.
For the crew there is an additional logistic today. The performance is being filmed. When word went out about the show a few months ago several people started asking us if filming was a possibility. Many who wished to see the play couldn’t travel to Edinburgh, and perhaps a film would be useful to local hospices for wider education or fundraising purposes. We have been fortunate to get sponsorship to support the costs.
As I watch the play for the fourth time, I take on a more authorly gaze. I make mental notes of the best lines as well as some that could be improved. I wonder if small changes might heighten the drama. I was at a book festival event this morning where an author declared his love for the ‘back story’. I wonder if more of that could be introduced for my four characters. There will be time enough to ponder those things in the coming weeks.
For now the atmosphere in the room is visceral and requires no analysis.
Afterwards everyone must leave the space quickly to make way for the next show. But upstairs people linger in the foyer or on the street outside. Several gather in the bar. I’m there for another hour, listening and talking.
There is someone who was drawn to hospice volunteering though personal experience and is now reading in depth into the life and work of Cicely Saunders. Another young person approaches me for a word. She has no connection with the palliative care world or knowledge about it. She has come to the play because her parents were from Warsaw, David Tasma’s home city.
One older man tells me ‘I lost my wife to cancer. I found it all very emotional, very emotional. But in a very good way’.
And once again there are proud family members, thrilled with what their sons and daughters have achieved on stage or in the production of the play. As an academic, I have a slight feel of graduation day.
Outside as I make my way back to my family, the skies open, the wind gets up and there is a blast of rain that whips in from the Firth of Forth. I make no attempt to seek shelter. Lifting my face to the elements I feel thankful for those precious moments, spent with others, immersed in the story of Cicely and David.
Saturday 20th August
At 1pm we learn that for compelling reasons a member of the five person cast will be unavailable this evening. One of our co-directors immediately steps forward. A new costume is found and the show will go on.
By the time I reach the venue, crucial scenes are being rehearsed and to my astonishment the players seem relaxed and confident. It is a remarkable testimony to our group of student actors. How I have marvelled this week at their professionalism and passion.
The performance is full of light and shade. Cicely Saunders’ post-war encounter with the dying David Tasma in her first year as a hospital almoner is the central drama out of which the emergence of the modern hospice concept takes place. The play tells this story. It also lays out the principles of hospice and palliative care. It is intended, in David Tasma’s own words, to touch our minds and hearts. I think it has succeeded.
Tonight the audience pick up on the humour. The players respond in kind.
The emotional temperature is raised, and everyone in the theatre can feel it.
The final scene brings catharsis.
Afterwards, the conversations and reflections roll out as they have done each evening. People share their own stories of connection to the play, its characters and storyline.
Thanks to our sponsors, we have covered all of our production costs. This means that all proceeds from ticket sales, topped up by a leaving collection, will go to the Hospices of Hope Ukraine Appeal – around £4,000.
Afterwards, the whole team joins together in a Stockbridge pizzeria. We are all still animated. Toasts are made and impromptu speeches given. There are cards and gifts. Many of the team thank me and the producer, Jo Hockley, for taking them on. We thank them in return for taking us on.
Months of preparation and teamwork have brought a remarkable result. We all wonder what tomorrow will feel like.
For my part, I’m optimistic the play will live on and grow. Following this first production, I hope it will serve as a new platform to promote the message of palliative care – everywhere, and for everyone.
For more information about ‘Cicely and David’, including access to the script, please see: https://davidgrahamclark.net/cicely-and-david-a-play/