The Nature of Forgetting uses theatre to explain everything you didn't know about dementia

Guillaume Pigé tells Andrew Moore how his play addresses misconceptions around the condition while highlighting the elemental feelings that it leaves behind

We all know someone living with dementia. There’s no avoiding the sadness of it.

It can be frustrating from the outside looking in, but imagine what it’s like for the person themselves. It’s difficult to understand what’s going on in a person’s head whenever they forget. How does one explain what isn’t actually there? Guillaume Pige might just have the answer.

Pige is the director of the fantastic The Nature of Forgetting, a show that arrives to the MAC, Belfast, on May 31 following critically acclaimed performances at London’s International Mime Festival and Shoreditch Town Hall.

It follows our main character, Tom – played by Pige - who is living with early onset dementia. We’re first introduced to him on his 55th birthday, being helped by his daughter Sophie (Louise Wilcox) as he struggles to get dressed for the party. What follows is an inspiring and energetic journey, exploring Tom’s weakening mind and illustrating that 'broken does not have to mean defeated'.

'When I gathered the team for this project I told them I wanted to do a show on exploring memory', Pige tells me as I question him on the early inspiration for his work. 'I guess that the main question we were trying to answer was ‘What is eternal?’ What will always be true about you, about me, about human beings?'

'The question then became ‘What is left when memory is gone?’ We tried to find the answer and made a show about it. We discovered that things like love and the present moment were very important elements as to what is left when memory is gone.'

What unravelled was an exploration into the very fabric of how memories are formed, and what happens when we find it difficult to remember. Pige learned that memories are not simply stored in a memory library and called upon when needed. When we attempt to remember we are, whether we’re aware of it not, unfolding a canvas and splashing it with colour.

'Memories are being constructed in a very visual way', he says. 'First of all you create the space, and then you fill that space with detail. When you have trouble remembering it’s not because you can’t access the different element to create that memory, you just misconstruct them. You leave details on the shelf.'

Pige and his team learned all of this through the aid of neuroscientist Kate Jeffery. Throughout this education it became clear that memories do not disappear from someone living with dementia, they simply become inaccessible. This is why things like music are able to trigger a response in people who live with the decline in mental ability.

Jeffery would use metaphors to explain what happens in the brain when a memory is created. It was this that would provide the tools and foundations for Pige as the vision of his show came to life.

'She was trying to explain how memory works to us, so she was coming up with metaphors as to how things happen, and it was actually those metaphors that were really inspiring', he tells me.

'For instance, she was trying to explain the role of hippocampus. It’s this little part in the centre of your brain were memories are constructed. She said it’s a little bit like a workshop. I had an on stage discussion going on in my head and it just seemed to work immediately. That workshop were things were being constructed and deconstructed constantly and on the side you would have different elements to construct those memories.'

The-Nature-of-Forgetting-–-courtesy-of-Danilo-Moroni_9

In addition to his, Pige conducted a series of interviews with older members of the community and people living with dementia. There’s a reason I’ve been using the word living, too. It’s at this point in the interview that I accidentally use the word ‘suffering’ instead. Pige makes it very clear that they are not suffering with an illness, they are very much alive. I shamefully recognise my mistake and listen on as the director informs me of the inspiring people he met with.

'You discover the stories of the people. When we collaborate with people we tend to not do it as a one off, we continue to collaborate over a long period of time', he says. 'We create a real connection with the people that we’re working with. I think what it taught me is empathy. Ultimately, that’s what theatre is for. It’s to enable us to step into someone else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.'

'I think that’s what’s fascinating about this particular piece. We’re not pretending that we’re going to show you what happens in the brain belonging to someone living with dementia. What we’re trying to do is put ourselves and the audience into that particular person’s view of the world.'

At its heart, Pige’s The Nature of Forgetting is not a science project, even when workshops are run alongside it to explain the scientific background to the play. It’s about 'the fragility of life', what still remains even after memory has become inaccessible. The memory may be out of reach, but the love that was shared during it can never truly diminish.

'It’s not a slow process of dying. You’re still you', he explains, as our time together comes to an end. 'I think that’s what the show is about. It’s not a show about dementia, it’s a show about everything else, and we’re using dementia to unravel that everything else. That’s what’s important.'

'You would be surprised how much humour there is when you go to one of the meetings that the Alzheimer’s Society is organising. There’s a lot of humour, a lot games, it’s full of life. It’s the opposite of what we’re told dementia is. That’s what we’re making the show about... Everything else.'

The Nature of Forgetting is at the MAC, Belfast from Thursday May 31 to Sunday June 3. For tickets go to www.themaclive.com/event/the-nature-of-forgetting or call 028 9023 5053.