Euthanasia Explored in An Instinct for Kindness

Chris Larner helped his ex-wife to commit suicide in Switzerland. Writing a play about the experience was his way of coping

In 2010 actor and writer Chris Larner, perhaps best known for his role as Clingfilm in London’s Burning, traveled with his ex-wife Allyson Lee and her sister, Vivienne, to Switzerland. Only Larner, Vivienne and Allyson’s dismantled wheelchair returned to the UK. Allyson, who had suffered with MS for many years, had ended her life at the Dignitas clinic with a bitter draught of sodium pentobarbital.

The following year, Larner wrote An Instinct for Kindness, a one-man play about the experience. An Instinct for Kindness captures everything from Allyson’s acerbic wit to the odd mundanity of the Dignitas experience, such as chocolates being presented to patients to take the taste away. It might sound strange to some, but Larner’s fond, unapologetic account is a powerful piece of theatre.

Larner is soft-spoken and composed when talking about Dignitas. His voice goes hard, however, when discussing the fact both he and his former sister-in-law Vivienne may have faced prosecution for their actions. Assisted suicide remains illegal in Britain. ‘But as far as I was concerned, if [the authorities] had wanted to arrest me for helping Allyson, they were welcome to do it,' he declares.

‘I wish she was still alive. I wish she was fit and healthy and had never gotten ill,’ Larner says of the ex-wife with whom he remained close. ‘But Allyson had struggled bravely for years and this was what she wanted. I was glad that I could help.’

Like many people who feel that their final recourse is Dignitas, it would have been virtually impossible for Allyson to travel Switzerland on her own. ‘She hadn’t even gone out of her flat in years. Going down ramps hurt her back,’ Larner says. ‘Going to the corner shop was a trip too far, never mind Switzerland.’

After Allyson’s death, the need to write about events he describes as laced with ‘irony and strangeness’ struck Larner almost immediately. Questioning whether or not he had the right to do so, however, he pushed the idea out of his mind.

Back home, though, people wanted him to tell the story over and over again. They wanted, Larner notes, ‘to know the gory details, but they didn’t want to ask me about them'. Thereafter, the idea for a performance piece began to take hold. It would be a fitting tribute. After all, Allyson had been ‘theatre people’ too – an actress and later a drama teacher. It was how they had met.

Larner admits he felt a 'peculiar tug' when writing it. Balancing the friend, and ex-husband's, grief with the writer's need to create something beautiful felt like a 'perverse thing' at times. 'I did perform the play at the school Allyson taught at,' Larner recalls. 'She was a brilliant teacher and the entire audience were her students and colleagues. They said she would have approved of it.'

To Larner An Instinct for Kindness was written as personal catharsis rather than a political polemic. Yet the personal is also political, and Larner admits that too. He doesn’t regret helping Allyson end her life on her terms, but he does object to the fact that she had to put herself through that gruelling, painful trip to do so. Not to mention the years of energy, organization and money it had taken to get them on that plane in the first place.

‘It is very involved, even if you were in the peak of physical health, and it all has to be done in complete secrecy,’ Larner adds. ‘Allyson was worried all the time that someone would find out what we were doing and stop us.’

And while Larner believes that the police are unlikely to act against someone like him – who is ‘at no risk of ever doing this again’ – notaries, doctors and even travel agents are becoming increasingly wary of getting involved in Dignitas visits for fear of subsequent prosecution.

So what of people in the same situation as Allyson who lack her strength and resources? Listening to Larner’s story, to Allyson’s story, it seems perverse to deny people the ending they want. Yet for many – who believe that it is impossible to define quality of life – it isn’t that simple.

What is unbearable to one person is just another Tuesday to another. If someone has lost the ability to communicate, can society trust their guardian to say ‘they want to die, now’? How long does someone have to want to die before it isn’t just a phase? If they stop wanting to die and then start again, does the timer reset?

Larner doesn’t claim to have the answers, but he does think that it is something ‘we aren’t very good at discussing’. So far, for example, the reactions to An Instinct for Kindness have been overwhelmingly positive.

That might be artistically heartening, but Larner argues that people who don't agree with assisted suicide are unlikely to be convinced otherwise. Therefore, they have not attended his play. ‘It has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival,’ Larner explains. ‘But people are there to take risks, to try something new. There’s no time afterwards for conversation.’

Larner would welcome a debate about the topics explored in An Instinct for Kindness. He hopes that his current tour, which takes him everywhere from Hull to Lisburn, will provide more of a chance to connect with the audience. Some of the venues will even have time for discussion scheduled in.

For those in the audience who don’t want to engage politically, or those who think that they understand the issues, Larner has a message: ‘It isn’t just a play about dying,' he insists. 'It’s funny. It’s not dull. It’s about Allyson Lee, how funny and strong she was, a woman I married and who was my friend.’

An Instinct for Kindness is at the ISLAND Arts Centre March 16.