“I just didn’t know where she’d gone,” says the writer and actor Lorien Haynes. “I know that sounds really simplistic, but I didn’t know where she’d gone. She was very young and very beautiful and very loved — and what we experienced as a group of young people around her was kind of unfathomable. I had never experienced grief like that before.”
She is talking about a beloved friend, who died in 2006. Years later, that overwhelming experience of loss found its way into a script, Good Grief. It is about to reach our screens in a streamed film with an eye-catching cast — Sian Clifford (recently seen in Fleabag and James Graham’s TV drama Quiz) and Nikesh Patel (Artemis Fowl) — and an excellent director in Natalie Abrahami. Looking back, Haynes realises that writing was a way of dealing with the absence of her friend.
“I wanted to write something that did her justice,” she says. “It had to be as funny as her; she had to be present in the play even though you never meet her; she had to be honoured. I wanted it to be a piece full of joy and light and humour and irreverence, which are all the things that I saw her as being.”
The result is a romantic comedy in which two characters, Adam and Cat, fumble their way through bereavement after the death of Liv — Adam’s partner and Cat’s friend. The play, filmed in a studio and streamed from mid-February, is roughly structured around the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But it’s also deliberately unsentimental, swinging from comedy to raw longing. The two joke, squabble in an Ikea car park and cling to each other in a hotel bedroom. Haynes explains that she wanted the piece to be honest about the confusing and conflicting emotions that can surge through grief.
“Everybody goes through those stages of grief,” she says. “I don’t think they go through them systematically in a particular order and what’s difficult is that family members and friends are feeling different emotions at different times.
“But I think at this time when people are wrestling tremendous grief and disillusionment it has to be addressed — and in a way that people are consumed by it and not repelled by it. That’s why I felt humour was so important [in the piece]. Because, let’s face it, at the moment, if there’s no humour, why would you put yourself through it?”
Though the script was written several years ago, this film now arrives at a time of mass loss and enormous grief. The UK recently passed the awful milestone of 100,000 Covid-related deaths. So will a drama about bereavement be welcome? Is it helpful or too soon to confront this pain? Director Abrahami says concern about this coloured her approach and she hopes the piece will help.
“When I first read it I was so moved by it,” she says. "But I did have a question: how does it feel to land this piece now? It's such an unprecedented and unimaginable thing that people are going through. Even if you haven't lost someone yourself, you are living in a state of tension about it. [The characters] talk about not getting to say the goodbye they wanted, which I think is very pertinent to what we’re living through now: you don’t know what is that last time you are in touch with someone. So we wanted to be careful: you don’t want something that’s completely on top of what’s going on now.”
Playwrights have written about the enormity of loss for centuries and in starkly contrasting ways — from Lear’s harrowing lament over the body of his daughter Cordelia, to the anarchic comedy of Complicite’s A Minute Too Late, to the silent desolation of a 1950s war widow in Mike Leigh’s Grief. And sometimes it can be comedy that helps you reach the heart of loss. Talking about his heartbreaking performance as a bereaved father in Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall, Andrew Scott spoke about playing the joy in the piece: “It’s much more important for me to play the lightness, because the darkness will always play itself,” he said.
Abrahami echoes that thought. “You want to try and find the humour,” she says. “That’s what Cat and Adam are trying to do to keep themselves afloat — because otherwise they would sink down. That is the challenge of the piece.”
“I don’t think people respond predictably to anything,” adds Haynes. “The English often respond with dark humour . . . And when I say [the piece] is a romance, I don’t mean between Cat and Adam. I think it’s a love story about how much they love someone they lost.”
The streaming arrives at an immensely testing time for theatre, with venues shut indefinitely across the UK and many artists struggling to survive financially. The project reflects that reality. Though filmed, the finished piece (produced by Platform Presents and Finite Films) has a deliberately makeshift feel and includes footage of the work that goes into making even a short film. On screen, we watch as the cast and crew assemble for the filming, we see them erect lights, set up microphones and fashion a set from cardboard boxes.
The idea, says Abrahami, is to offer a hybrid of theatre and film. The piece aims to fuse the intimacy of filmed close-ups with the immediacy of live performance. Rather than shoot the film on location, the team left some creative work to the audience.
“We wanted to try and harness the audience’s imagination,” she says. “So the set is a very rough aesthetic of all these cardboard boxes, which are all the packing-up of Liv’s life. It’s not literal: it’s not ‘This is Adam and Liv’s house and this is Ikea.’ We were purposely saying to an audience, ‘We need you — without you this doesn’t make sense.’
“I know it is a big ask of an audience to do that much imagining with a set of cardboard boxes. But on the other hand these are not spaces that they don’t know. And it’s also our way of saying, ‘We know that you’re there and we wish we were in the same place as you.’”
Abrahami often finds herself on the experimental edge of theatre: one of her recent productions was the superb Anna at London’s National Theatre, a story of Cold War surveillance, which used binaural microphones to pull the audience into the experience of the lead character. She suggests that one positive in a bleak landscape is the growing body of innovative work as companies experiment with new formats online. Good Grief, for instance, employed a crew drawn from the worlds of both screen and stage.
“Actors work between film and theatre a lot and yet it is quite new to have a production designer from theatre working with a cinematographer from film,” Abrahami says. “It’s interesting to think that film doesn’t have to sit in one camp and theatre in another: there is a possibility for liminal spaces in between.”
Haynes adds that, while reflecting on current issues, drama can also play a practical part. Her next project is a set of short films about domestic abuse. And for Good Grief, 10 per cent of each ticket bought will go to the NHS and 10 per cent to Macmillan Cancer Support.
“I don’t think you can put anything out at the moment without giving back,” says Haynes. “I just wanted it to be a hand into the darkness where you feel grief and you want somebody to reach out a hand and go, ‘I’ve got you.’ If it does that for one person, it’s a success for me as a writer.”
‘Good Grief’ is available to stream February 15-April 15, platformpresents.com