Absence and Presence

'Absence & Presence': For a Father Who's Not There, Except in Effigy and in Elegy

Andrew Dawson's astonishing, almost unbearably moving "Absence & Presence" begins with a telephone ringing (that old-fashioned jangly ring) and a television screen showing a human hand. A man's voice announces that he died in 1985 and that his body lay undiscovered for 10 days.

When the lights come up, Mr. Dawson is standing, making flickering, birdlike gestures with his right hand, sometimes striking one of the bare light bulbs that hang from the ceiling. He then proceeds to present a roughly hourlong study of grief over his father's death that is so powerful that anyone who has recently lost someone close may, unless itching for catharsis, want to stay away. The show was an award winner at last year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The elder Mr. Dawson, a postal carrier in Sussex, England, lived alone and sent his son mundane letters about bad roads, rising postage rates, local soccer games and the difficulty of just getting through the days: "If I could cook a nice hot meal I would have more energy. I do my best to get to work but seem to go so slow."
The son uses his father's eyeglasses and pipe in an attempt to evoke him and tries to imitate his shuffling yet somehow happy-go-lucky walk. He recreates a night when the father came to see his son in the theater in what must have looked like childish melodrama, and a ridiculous way to make a living, to such a sensible adult.

Toward the end the abstract becomes more specific when Mr. Dawson sets a human-shaped wire-mesh figure on his shoulders like a small child watching a parade or just thrilled to be traveling so high with daddy's help.

Earlier the mesh figure represented the father's dead body: no longer the beloved man, but only, as people so often say, an empty shell. Mr. Dawson drives that cruel absence home with the appearance on screen of the man's mouth. We wait for him to speak, and wait and wait. And the telephone goes on ringing, never answered.

Joby Talbot's original, emotionally wide-ranging music adds significant depth to Mr. Dawson's performance. The most piercing moment comes near the end when it becomes clear what those flickering, birdlike gestures really were.

Performance: Andrew Dawson
Direction: Andrew Dawson in collaboration with Jos Houben & Graham Johnston
Music: Joby Talbot
Video: Andrew Dawson, Graham Johnston
Lighting: Andrew Dawson, Steven Smith
Producer: Sara Sheppard

A co-production with the Fabrik, Potsdam 2005

Total Theatre Award (2005)
Herald Angel Award (2005)
The Carol Tambor Award (2005)