Remembrance of things past is not just a preoccupation of Proust. From King Lear’s terrifying fear of losing his mind to Pinter’s interlocked threesome in “Old Times” hotly contesting what each of them remembers, memory has been the well-spring of many a play. But in the National Theatre’s stage adaptation of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film “After Life,” memory is not just one element, it’s the be-all and, quite literally, the end-all.
Memory is all that several of this story’s characters actually have since, as Kevin McMonagle’s almost jaunty opening address puts it: “Yesterday, you passed away. I’m sorry for your loss.” Having died, these arrivals meet five formally dressed, unnamed “guides” on Bunny Christie’s efficient, bureaucratic set with a back wall of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets. These people are in neither heaven nor hell, but rather in something between limbo and a giant waiting room.
The newly dead remain here for a week, not for judgement but for the time it takes them to select a moment from their life and, at the end of the week, have it presented back to them. It is this moment that they will take with them as their state of being in which to remain for eternity.
They are led to their choice by the guides, and, picking up from the original screenplay, Jack Thorne’s script and Jeremy Herrin’s production edits together the thoughts, doubts, fears and, ultimately, the choices of the characters.
Each character, as would be expected, react differently not only to their new and temporary place of stay, but also to the necessity of choosing one moment to, as it were, live by. The most fully realized of those is the one belonging to worried, elderly Beatrice, beautifully played with fierce defensiveness by June Watson. In her final days Beatrice, having never married, had no one to care for but her cat — about whom she is desperately worried. In this, the most atmospheric and easily the best acted story, we discover her love for the brother with whom she used to go dancing. But what initially seems like a sentimental attachment grows much darker as she tells most of her story.
Yet it is precisely that telling which is at the heart of the show’s problem. The idea of electing a single illuminating moment is fascinating, but collectively they feel like show’n’tell because they’re not embedded in developing drama or conflict. And being so overtly stated, there’s no subtext or anything else for the audience to grip and glean. Despite the impressively deft efforts of Herrin’s experienced, finely meshed creative team, there are long expanses of exposition and little tension and release, thus creating an inert atmosphere.
The exception is the handling of the late reveal of the true character of Guide Two, played with aplomb by Luke Thallon. Having shone with energy in Rebecca Frecknall’s “Nine Lessons and Carols” at the Almeida and quietly stolen the acting honors in the disappointingly flaccid “Leopoldstadt,” the 25-year-old Thallon yet again unobtrusively reveals himself as a major talent. With beautifully judged restraint, he brings depth to a massively compromised character.
Ironically, the subtlety of his work shows up some of the more unexpectedly pedestrian performances around him. And even Thallon cannot lift the more portentous elements of the script, which descends into on-the-nose aphorisms about choice and meaning.
Even the final visualizations of the characters’ chosen moments are only partially successful. In keeping with the style of the film, Herrin and his team opt for the power of simplicity. Rather than an overly impressive riot of special effects, this is consciously hand-made theater. But too little of it is fully resonant, because we cannot fully engage with told, but unfelt, tales.