The only thing inevitable about life is death. So why do we focus on leading a good life, without any thought on how to lead a good death?
A Good Death is a one-woman play led by palliative care doctor Dr Leong (Karen Tan) who helps her patients through their final days. Death creeps into her personal life as well, as she worries over the care for her dementia-ridden father. Despite these heavy-handed themes, A Good Death takes on a soft, composed approach, mainly bolstered by Tan’s graceful performance.
In A Good Death, Tan is a compelling presence. She commits herself entirely to her performance, playing characters ranging from an kind-hearted elderly Malay patient to a pragmatic Peranakan mother. Tan undertakes physically taxing positions, as she crouches, sits, stands and dances within seconds of switching roles. Her movements are precise, her voices are assured.
Furthermore, A Good Death succeeds in moments of vivid poetic imagery. Faith Ng’s writing shines in the play’s opening monologue about how we best recall events—only the peaks and the end, but oh, now we have missed the beginning. At the same time, Ng plods through along scenes where characters are introduced as convenient plot tools. A couple of patients Dr Leong face are clearly a foil to her own dementia-ridden father, rather than well-rounded characters. This means that some characters and scenes work better than others, though Tan’s likability fortunately makes up for this.
The most visually striking aspect of A Good Death is its bare, spacious set. The entire set is coated with a white-grey marble-like finish, akin to the cool flooring from thirty-year-old HDB flats, or perhaps, more chillingly like marble slabs at a morgue. The empty set does little to distract from Tan, but also curiously, does little in enhancing her performance. The huge space gives room for Tan to play, but the set’s cold stark finish becomes neither a necessity or a hindrance, striking yet forgettable.
Overall, A Good Death is a play that tackles death with compassion and consideration. Tan makes a great effort in showcasing a gentle dignity in the face of death, despite the inevitability of it all.