Preview: Enlightenment

Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant David Ward talks to the director of a play about missing people

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A quarter of a million people go missing in Britain every year, according to one estimate. A play now running at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria, tells the story of one of them.

Not quite. Enlightenment by Shelagh Stephenson, now receiving its regional premiere as part of Theatre by the Lake’s summer repertory season, is fiction. But it has a firm ring of truth.

The play begins five months after student Adam disappeared in Jakarta while on a backpacking trip. It focuses mainly on the anguish and despair of his mother, Lia – who, like many a real-life parent when something like this happens, calls in a psychic in the hope of picking up any kind of information.

“It doesn’t get any easier. It gets worse,” she explains. “The police couldn’t help, nobody could help, but my bones ache for him, my head is full of him, and sometimes I think my heart will burst. I just want to hear his voice. Sometimes I think I’ll die if I don’t hear his voice again.”

These pain-filled words echo those of a mother quoted in a report by Missing People, the UK charity that tries to bring missing children and adults back to their families: “It wasn’t as though I was thinking of suicide, but I had never in my life, and still haven’t, experienced such excruciating pain.”

Zoë Waterman, the director of Enlightenment, sought help from Missing People before rehearsals began. “I’m a bit of a geek and I love doing research,” she says. “Part of what I love about my job is that I get to become a mini expert in whichever area is covered by the play I am working on. I want to have all that information at my fingertips.”

Waterman gathered a clutch of statistics from the Missing People website. But she needed to know more. “I wanted to go beyond searching the internet and reading books; I wanted another depth of knowledge. So I talked to Emma Cummings, counselling services manager at Missing People, to a doctor for information about amnesia (a condition that plays a significant part in the play), and to the police.

“I then had to find a balance between this information and the facts that are made available to the audience by Shelagh Stephenson. In rehearsals, I made this information available to the cast. It was useful for those of us who have never been through anything like this and hope we never will.”

Waterman was particularly interested in the different stages of grief someone goes through when a loved family member goes missing rather than dies. They cannot have closure – a word Lia in the play hates: “Closure. That stupid, unimaginative word. If anyone else says it to me, I’ll punch them.”

“Emma talked about frozen grief, a very specific condition identified by psychiatrists for people unable to move on from the early stages of grief,” explains the director. “That applies specifically to missing people but also to families in which a member has been in a coma or a vegetative state for a very long time.”

“Most of us have had experience of a death but not of a missing person. In the first half of the play, Lia finds she can’t talk to other people because no one can understand what she is going through. It’s not something that friends and family know how to talk about.”

As Lia says: “There is no ending. It’s not a story. [Friends] talk about accepting and moving on. As if it’s something you can recover from, like a broken ankle. What is it we’re supposed to accept?”

Waterman also learned about the impact of such a loss on couples and that there can be a perceived hierarchy of grief: who in a family has the right to grieve most? “It’s about ownership of the missing person. Lia’s father at one point reminds us that Adam is his grandson as well as Lia’s son.”

Waterman’s research and considered approach have been praised by Jo Youle, chief executive of Missing People, who went to see Enlightenment at Theatre by the Lake and said it captured the trauma of missing a loved one very well.

Enlightenment runs in repertory at Theatre by the Lake until 7 November.

David Ward

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