An Instinct for Kindness: An Interview with Chris Larner (level B1)

R=Rachel or boldness = myself the interviewer and CL=Chris Larner or regular font (no bolded) the interviewee

R [intro]: So in November 2010, Chris Larner took his ex-wife Alison who was suffering from multiple sclerosis to Dignitas in Switzerland. The play an instinct for kindness has been shortlisted for the whatsonstage award. I am now interviewing the actor Chris Larner.

How did you feel about assisted dying before you accompanied your ex-wife Alison to Dignitas?

CL: How did I feel about it? I hadn’t really thought about it, precisely, philosophical. Had you asked me I would have always been of the position that we control our own lives, that we control our own destinies; that my life is mine and that no one else has the right to tell me what to do with it. That would have been philosophically my position. Specifically, I hadn’t worried about the legality of it, cause I’d never come across it; it had never come my way until Alison got very, very ill and asked me to go, and then, you know, you have to start thinking about it.

What checks and balances did the Swiss have in terms of the initial application?

What checks and balances do they have? It’s quite a rigorous process. I think it may be changing now, but I think when Alison and I went to Switzerland there was a popular myth around in this country that you just got on a plane and went, it was easy, an easy process. It isn’t; it’s expensive and its quite laborious and lengthy and exhausting actually. The process with Dignitas is that you have to become a member. You have to get your membership card and you get a yearly newsletter, and you have to write quite a lot you know a detailed letter as to why want to be a member of the organisation. And only once you are a member can you then apply if you get ill or if you want to end your life. And then they are fairly rigorous, it seemed to me about checking medical records and medical details; they won’t just accept you, in fact most people are not accepted if they apply to Dignitas.

So, there was an awful lot of medical documentation and affidavits that Alison had to send off to Switzerland. And then, once we got to Switzerland, she was interviewed by a doctor, who had been reviewing her case all along the way. So, there are people who say that it’s not rigorous enough. It’s the Swiss; you know, our law here [IN THE UK] doesn’t allow for anything. That’s up to us if we change the law here, that’s up to this country to make sure that procedures are in place.

What kind of response have you got from the audience? Do you think there is a taboo around this subject anymore than around death generally?

When I started writing An Instinct For Kindness which is my play about the experience of taking Alison to Switzerland, I really had no idea what would come out of it as a theatre piece at the end of it. I just knew I had this story to tell. I didn’t know whether people would find it prurient or exploitative or just bad taste to be telling a story which was personal and indeed true. But if anyone has found it prurient or in bad taste, they haven’t told me about it.

The response I’ve had from it has been fantastic. And yes, it does break a taboo in talking about this. But people who come to see the show are ready to break that taboo anyway. “I have met people who have said I can’t come and see your show because I would find it too upsetting” or “I don’t want to think about these things” or “I just don’t agree with what you’re saying” and that’s fine. From my point of view, putting a human face on what can be a very dry, high moralistic subject was important.

So, the response I’ve had from people who’ve come to see the show has been overwhelmingly positive. People have been very moved by it because you get to meet Alison, because I play Alison as well as myself. You know so you get to meet her and go through the horrible pain that she went through and the decision that she came to which was very difficult.

So, it’s not an easy watch as a piece of theatre; I can say that. But people have been very kind about it.

What campaigning have you done around assisted dying? I’ve read you were going to put a political standpoint in your play but you decided against it. What sort of things were you going to say?

What campaigning have I done? Well, since doing the play, I have become more a patron of Dignity in Dying, which is the British charity which campaigns for a change in the law, and they asked me to become a patron and I broadly agree with what they’re trying to do. So, that was a good thing, but other than doing the play I am not really suited to political campaigning. This play is political enough, I think, because it is breaking a slight taboo in talking about the “untalkable”.

As I said earlier, when I started writing it and rehearsing it and I didn’t write a complete script then I was rehearsing it; it was all mixed in. I didn’t quite know what kind of show it was going to be. The experience that I found, and that Alison certainly found in getting to Dignitas was that it was impossibly hard, very, very strenuous, and expensive and exhausting for her. So, when I started writing and rehearsing, as I dwelt on that and dwelt on what she went through not just her illness, her MS, which can be a terrible disease just fighting for that last bit of dignity was just a terrible kind of burden on her. And thinking about it and dwelling on it made me angrier and angrier and angrier.

You know, it’s such a typically English law that we’ve got, with a bit of fudge here, a bit of obfuscation there, bit of cowardice, here and they muddle along because people who are desperate to end their own lives for good reason go to Switzerland and they spend a lot of money if they’ve got it. And if they’re coherent enough to get there and well enough to get there that’s what they do. So, the problem is exported.

So as I was writing the play, I got angrier and angrier about that situation, and I think, quite rightly so. But myself and H.I, the director, we quickly realised, that actually, that anger in the play, me standing up and ranting and going. “Ooh, we must change the law,” was not appropriate to the play. The play is Alison’s story and it’s about as much her as a person and me as a person and our relationship as it is about her; the way her life ended. And really, it’s a much better piece, I think, because the politics has taken a backseat. It speaks for itself; it’s obvious, you know Alison was very poorly and should have had the right to die in her own bed, at her own time, instead of you know having to fly a 1000 miles away and spend a lot of money and a lot of stress but anyway.

So, I think it’s obvious the politics in the play so we cut out a lot of the more explicit ranting politically cause I don’t think I am best at that; I think I’m best at summoning up an emotional story and let people do their own judgment. After all, the best political theatre is the one not where people are being political on the stage but where the audience become political after they leave the theatre.

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