Nell Dunn is a distinguished writer whose work includes the award-winning play Steaming, as well as several novels including Up the Junction, which was directed for TV by Ken Loach. Her latest play Home Death is based on moving true-life accounts of people dealing with the death of their loved ones at home. It was performed this week at the Royal Society of Medicine as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. Here, the writer reveals how her own experience of loss led her to confront the way we deal with the reality of dying, raising urgent questions about the state of palliative care in the UK today.
Where did the idea to write your play first originate?
I wrote Home Death because after the death of my partner at home, I realised I knew so little about how to comfort and take care of the dying. So I began to ask other people, and what I learned I put into the play.
The main impetus was curiosity – a desperation to know. After the feeling of failure in my situation with my partner, Dan, it seemed to make me feel better talking to others.
You interweave a number of individuals’ stories in the play. Was it always your intention to include your own personal experience as well?
I started with my own story. I was heartbroken I hadn’t helped Dan more. He had always been so wonderful and supportive to me, and I so wanted to help, but was frightened and didn’t know enough.
Could you describe your process of researching and writing Home Death?
I always research in a completely haphazard way… talking to someone on a bus for example. I use a tape recorder sometimes, not always. The technique is to gather material, then smash the glass and reassemble it differently by listening to it again and again – hence the unconventional punctuation in the play.
You also write novels and screenplays, but what made you choose to write Home Death as a play?
I think the theatre is the best medium for Home Death. It can be interpreted in so many different ways by actors, yet it is really so simple – stories about the most extreme moment of life. People are so extraordinary, and this is what I have tried to capture.
The play contains some striking images that feature in several of the stories such as the cold, unwanted, hospital bed arriving in a patient’s home. Is this a notion that particularly struck you?
The image of the cold bed was intentional. I was thinking about how an object was attempting to take the place of clear sensible human care. Why an unfamiliar ugly hospital bed to die in, rather then your own familiar bed?
What is your opinion of the current standard of palliative care available in the UK?
Sometimes palliative care is excellent and sometimes dreadful. However, I do think all the different painkillers that now exist should be more freely available to people in their last few weeks of life. Why this puritan approach to drugs?
There are far too few palliative care doctors, and almost none that do home visits. This means if you are dying at home, you are in the hands of a district nurse who isn’t even allowed to prescribe painkilling drugs like morphine – so you can find yourself in a dire position.
Why do you think we are so afraid of dying in today’s society, or do you think it has always been this way?
I think there has always been fear around death, which is why the Victorians made those huge lead-lined coffins to preserve the body for the afterlife. Eternal death was too frightening then, but most of us now believe that this is it – and when it is someone you love, it is so huge.
The first fully-fledged production of Home Death will take place at the Finborough Theatre in London this July – part of Vibrant, the venue’s annual playwriting festival. Nick Hern Books are proud to publish the script, which you can purchase with free P&P (UK customers only) and a special 20% discount, click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).
This week (16-22 May) is Dying Matters Awareness Week throughout the UK. Dying Matters is a broad-based national coalition led by the National Council for Palliative Care, with over 15,000 members which aims to support changing knowledge, attitudes and behaviours towards dying, death and bereavement, and through this to make ‘living and dying well’ the norm. To find out more or to join visit www.dyingmatters.org or call freephone 08000 21 44 66.