“Last Rites” at Shoreditch Town Hall

Jeremy Malies in east London
28 January 2024

One of the many merits of Last Rites performed by Ramesh Meyyappan is that in a father and son drama during which only Meyyappan is on stage, the unseen father is as tangible a presence as the son narrating their joint story.

Meyyappan’s approach is to move beyond sign language into physical theatre and mime with not a word being spoken during the 65-minute playing time. The piece conjures up a hectic 24 hours in which a son must react appropriately to the death of his father in terms of ritual.

Son is in the UK and father is in southern India. Fitting propitiations are crucial. I took the religion being depicted to be Hinduism, fancying that I saw images of the god Parashurama flash before me in what soon became a trancelike experience for spectators. At no time did this feel prescriptive and I could have been mistaken, with a less specific pantheism being observed.

Just as importantly, Last Rites is a polemic against barriers in the education system and an instance here of a deaf child being placed in an inappropriate hearing school. A cacophony of garbled indistinct languages causing Meyyappan’s character physical pain will be one of my main take-aways. It’s not quite babel–the sounds will presumably be indistinct to him– but competing voices and languages depicted only through the discomfort and disorientation they cause the narrator seemed to take a toll on us collectively at a near-capacity Shoreditch Town Hall.

Meyyappan has created the piece in collaboration with George Mann of Ad Infinitum (see Translunar Paradise review) who also directs. Both men have injected material about the experience of losing their fathers. We also touch on arranged marriage and fair working conditions.

A water vessel is the only prop but Meyyappan conjures up family treasures that meant much to father and son. Father’s rimless spectacles become an icon or emoji in Christopher Harrisson’s video projection which is extremely textual so as to reinforce the unfolding of the story. Sound design by Akintayo Akinbode focuses on bass notes, and no doubt audience members with all levels of hearing would be perceiving and processing this differently.

Linear progression would have been predictable and the piece benefits from mixing bursts of chronological storytelling with thematic content that shows the creators’ social conscience. The smooth movement from narrative to political and social debate is one of the many merits here. We learn of snubs, slights, miscommunications, fleeting connections and clumsy utterances. But even with one character dead, there is a sense of greater awareness and a clearer view of family history.

At the close, the protagonist has released his father’s soul and begun to understand himself better. It’s an uplifting piece of theatre crossing many boundaries and forms to tackle weighty themes without ever being solemn or prescriptive. Impressive.

Last Rites is part of MimeLondon & Manipulate Festival 2024. It will play at Festival Theatre Edinburgh 3-4 February. Ticket information here.