Review: Swear It On His Graves

Take a road trip to a remote Scottish isle in this beautifully nuanced tale about bogs, burials, and who we leave behind


“Please do not look for my brother in the ground. He doesn’t belong there.”

A play that opens with a eulogy is bound to be wrapped up in the past and what is lost forever. Swear It On His Graves, however, is sweetly attuned to the present-ness of grief, anchored in the very real portrayals of awkward conversations that attempt to make things feel normal or alright.

The play begins after the death of its absent central figure, Matt. His grieving wife, Ada (Coco Lefkow-Green), and brother, Chris (Alex Thompson), are brought together to organise his funeral– or, should I say, funerals? Because Matt has left behind a detailed manual: everything you need to know about conducting a bog burial. While technically illegal, his last wish to his wife and brother is that they carry his body to a remote bog on an uninhabited Scottish isle and bury him there in secret.

Image credits: Hillary Qiu

The play’s discussion of the bog burial quietly and unpretentiously illuminates its ideas on memory and preservation. In gently humorous car-ride conversation peppered with awkward silences, it is explained that the acid in a bog preserves the buried body for centuries, giving it up to a future where archaeologists’ concern for local history will in turn preserve the body’s personal story. The play itself enacts the strength of this preservation as it depicts Matt’s very absence as a crucial third character.

“It’s not technically a lie, but it’s not exactly the truth, either” becomes a central motif in this play, where Toni Renz’s exquisite writing rings with sensitivity to the complexities of truth when it comes to human relationships. The many revelations that bleed out as Ada and Chris journey to the place where they will lay Matt to rest are skilfully undramatic, restrained with a quiet confidence that moves the audience all the more for the naturalism of delivery.

Alex Thompson’s Chris is earnest and sweet in his sorrow, and there is a beautiful layering of grief and everyday weariness in his portrayal as we learn about his other pressing concerns– he is a worried father and husband, as well as a grieving brother. From his moving delivery of the eulogy, to his initial preoccupation as he and Ada set off on their morbid road trip, to his growing investment in the preservation of his brother’s memory, this is a character whose desperate yearning for comfort is wonderfully tempered by a rational sensibility of duty to the loved ones he still has close by.

Image credits: Hillary Qiu

Alex Thompson’s Chris is earnest and sweet in his sorrow, and there is a beautiful layering of grief and everyday weariness in his portrayal as we learn about his other pressing concerns– he is a worried father and husband, as well as a grieving brother. From his moving delivery of the eulogy, to his initial preoccupation as he and Ada set off on their morbid road trip, to his growing investment in the preservation of his brother’s memory, this is a character whose desperate yearning for comfort is wonderfully tempered by a rational sensibility of duty to the loved ones he still has close by.

Image credits: Hillary Qiu

A stripped-back set comprises only two chairs and a trough, objects which are repurposed throughout to represent coffin, car, ferry, bog, and remote bothy. Lighting designer Hillary Qiu’s spare use of lighting, alongside writer/director Toni Renz’s staging in the close space of the Corpus Playroom, signals subtle shifts in degrees of intimacy between the two characters onstage as they move through a shared processing of grief.

Image credits: Hillary Qiu

While there were moments of dramatic tension I would have liked to have seen drawn out a little more– a silence a few seconds longer to receive a painful admission, a more marked change in the tone and pacing of speech in moments of the most extreme human emotion– what I loved about this play was its gentle, wry, and sensitive temperament. If drama is somewhat forfeited for the sake of organic emotion, I see it as a worthy sacrifice.

Come and see Swear It On His Graves– I swear you won’t regret it.

4/5

Swear It On His Graves is showing 7th February – 10th February at 9.30pm in the Corpus Playroom. Book your tickets here.