“What happens to us when we die?” Is the question Artemis Fitzalan Howard wants to ask with her new play GATE. After the company’s previous success with ‘Pre-drinks/Afterparty’, Deadpan Theatre is back with a poignant and witty story of love and loss that asks what really happens to us after we die, what we leave behind and what we will become.
“Everybody asks me, ‘what on earth were you thinking?'” Artemis tells me when we discuss the concept of her new play. “I was having a conversation with a friend and suddenly it turned rather heavy, and we were discussing what happens when we die,” she says. GATE is a new, contemporary piece of theatre focused on the ‘gate to heaven.’ It’s the story of four twenty-somethings who have died and arrive at the gate having absolutely no idea how they got there.
“There is a guardian figure who is a receptionist, who has to tell people every day why they have arrived at the gate, and her job is to make sure these souls get through the day with her before they pass on to the next stage,” Artemis explains. “That is the basic set up of the play, it is in this closed setting of this waiting room and these four souls try to juggle their way through this day together.”
Whilst having a surreal concept, it’s naturalistic in tone. When writing it, Artemis loved the idea of making the setting of these people arriving at the gate, in a funny way, feel quite corporate. “I imagine it’s like those corporate away days, conference bonding days that companies do, I’ve never actually done one but I found the idea of them so funny,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if this world that people imagine is actually very corporate, and run like a conference day with a schedule, ice breakers, meet and greets and mid morning breaks with coffee and biscuits.”
It’s a light-hearted piece that is supposed to be funny yet entirely thought-provoking. “This is more black comedy really,” Artemis explains. “Although this is probably in a way, the most thoughtful piece of writing I’ve ever done, which I believe is because I am so interested in the topic.” After her initial conversation with her friend, Artemis expanded her research by asking the question to so many people, and she was intrigued by everybody’s responses.
“Religion can be like politics for some people and either they really want to tell you their opinions and have a good old chat about it, or people are quite private and it’s something quite personal,” she explains. “My parents are very Catholic and so I have very much been brought up on one sort of perspective but I am not particularly a practising Catholic myself.” Alongside first-hand discussion, she read a lot around the subject. Artemis says “Then I kind of just read really interesting articles about people saying they may have reached an afterlife and then they come back, you hear stories of people who have been in an awful accident and they claim to have passed on and then come back to life and what they’ve seen.”
We then got into a discussion about our views on what happens after death, and I brought up the theory that some people aren’t ready to go, and they are stuck in this kind of world in between life and death. “Absolutely, it’s like they’re holding back,” she says. “Since writing it people always ask me my opinion and I really haven’t got a clue, this play is just an imagining of a possibility, and how amusing it will be if this was what happened.”
In the synopsis of the play, it says: “The play is a thought-provoking new piece of theatre that stimulates discussion around religious themes that are topical and rare to see on stage nowadays.” Asking Artemis how she approached this in the piece, she expresses, “The four souls in the play are four twenty-something Londoners who all have very different lives and very different opinions on how they’ve got to where they’ve got, I try to question very different opinions, in that it’s not weighted one way or another and hopefully gives lots of insight.
For many people religions don’t have an enormous place anymore and I really wanted to open up this space for discussion where people actually might say ‘well it was for me once, but I sorted stopped thinking about whether I believe’ or ‘really what is the point where there is all this awful stuff going on in the world’ I just really wanted to give different perspectives without it being preachy.”
It’s a comedic piece that has a strong underlying message, as Artemis hopes the audience will leave asking the question: “What do I think will happen when I die?” However, she also emphasises on how she would like people to leave taking a look at themselves in their own lives, and how like these characters in the play are in the prime of their life, to think about the importance of valuing your life on earth while you’re still here. She says, “It does give you a chance to look at yourself a little bit, and how seriously you take certain things in your life, but also whether you should, and how you should seize every moment.”
GATE is on at the Cockpit Theatre from the 13th to the 24th of September, information can be found here.