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  • Flora Gosling

Review: An Accident/A Life (Tramway)

A life story without a lesson to learn

When you are at school and one of your classmates has an accident, it is a childhood milestone. We want to hear how it felt, what the hospital was like, and maybe sign the cast if we are lucky. It is easy when we’re young and our injuries are trivial, but that changes when life-changing accidents happen as an adult. In 1997 Marc Brew was involved in a car accident in South Africa which left him permanently paralysed from the waist down. With An Accident/A Life, he has collaborated with director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to create a performance that is not about the lessons learnt from his experience, as is often the case with autobiographical theatre of this nature, but about the accident itself. The situation may be more serious, but once again we are classmates eagerly gathered around Brew’s desk to hear how it all happened.


Photo Credit: Filip Van Roe

We are transported from rural South Africa to the limbo of the hospital and finally return to Brew’s native Australia. We see what happens not only from our seats in the audience but through a camera lens which is poked shakily into Brew’s face, the image of which is projected onto the walls and intercut with stock footage and baby photos. It is clear the effect he is going for is to take us closer to the action, closer to him and his feelings, but in fact, it has the opposite effect. Sets that look grand from a distance look dull up close, and the lines you expect to be directed to you are instead directed at the camera.


It might be easy to look past if the storytelling was enriching but, and I say this with all sincerity, it plays like an unaltered first draft. The script is speckled with “yeahs”, and “ers”, and repetition that spoon-feeds the audience and drags the runtime. His delivery doesn’t help it; he does not depict the emotions he felt at the time, nor recollect with a melancholy detachment, but speaks with reverence for his own story as though his own metaphors amaze him. It doesn’t help that said metaphors are familiar to the point of cliché, like time slowing down when the accident happens, or howling at the moon like a werewolf after being transformed, all without a lick of irony. As an audience, we are torn because we owe anyone willing to share such a vulnerable experience our full attention and respect, but at the same time…it is awfully cheesy.


Some of the staging is certainly clever – a bench flips over to become a claustrophobic airplane aisle, and a full-size car that dangles overhead ominously. But none of it draws us in as an audience or proposes a new way to look at his situation, and the few scenes that take a creative risk are simply bizarre, such as when Brew dresses as a skeleton, gnaws at his leg, then lifts a towel as the music switches to “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. It is one of many song choices that feel both very out of place and simultaneously desperately basic, like “Africa” by Toto, which we listen to almost in its entirety, like a joke in want of a punchline.


None of this is to take away from Brew’s lived experience or to criticise him for wanting to share it. It is to say that it is not enough to find expensive ways to stage a beat-for-beat retelling of the series of events, no matter how tragic. To affect an audience of strangers takes more thought. I cannot help but draw comparison to Sarah Hopfinger’s Pain and I, a dance theatre piece about her lifelong relationship with chronic pain which I saw the night before. Hopfinger came not to tell us that she was in pain, but how she lived with pain; how our perceptions of pain were markedly different from hers. There was no universal message to take away, but there was a purpose and a deliberateness to every one of those forty-five minutes that is missing from Brew and Cherkaoui’s performance. An Accident/A Life is a wonderful example of the difference between having an experience versus having a story. It’s the difference between learning the facts and understanding the feelings. It’s the difference that can make a narrative about a broken ankle sound profound and a life-altering car crash sound pedestrian. It’s the difference between a theatre performance and an anecdote told around a school desk. Two stars.

Whispers from the Crowd: "I really enjoyed it. It's nice to see when it's serious stuff that there's some light hearted stuff in it like the music. It helps it not be too heavy, helps it be more enjoyable."

An Accident/A Life has completed its run at Tramway


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