Sydney playwright Tommy Murphy, best known to gay audiences for his award-winning adaptation of Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding The Man, again turns his pen to matters of life and death in new work Gwen In Purgatory, which opens at Belvoir Theatre this month.

This time the spectre of death comes in the form of old age. The darkly comic story centres on Gwen (Melissa Jaffer), a 90-year-old woman battling for a graceful ending to her life but besieged by family members, the local priest, and even the modern appliances in her home.

“We are describing it as a comedy — the issues dealt with in the play can potentially be quite bleak, but we deal with it with a touch of humour,” Murphy told Sydney Star Observer during a break from rehearsals for the show.

When we spoke, Murphy had recently returned from London, where Holding The Man just finished its West End run. He was in London for five weeks, sitting in on rehearsals and watching the opening night performance. The season was met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction from audiences who, by and large, had no previous knowledge of the text.

“It was fantastic to see Matt Zeremes and Guy Edmonds reprise their roles; they’ve clocked almost 300 performances now,” Murphy said.

“We had to make a good case for including the Australian actors in the roles, because you have to show the Actor’s Union in the UK why their actors shouldn’t play the parts, but I’m so glad they did it.”

Now his attention is focused on his newest work, one that he admits drew some inspiration from his own life.

“There are a few ways I find myself in the play. Gwen finds herself abandoned, and I don’t think that’s age-specific ­­— we can all find ourselves in that sort of purgatory at one stage or another,” Murphy said.

“And with the elderly being an increasingly large proportion of our population, you are made to think about the duty of care to older people. Sometimes you’re confronted with it, when you have to figure out how to care for older relatives. The characters in the play respond to that duty of care in many different ways.”

Not all of them positive ­— as in life, the ageing of a parent can bring out the worst in some people. Ultimately, though, Murphy said he chose not to make any explicit judgement in the play about society’s attitude towards the elderly, and about death itself.

“You present a story that involves family and involves poking fun at the Catholic Church, as this play does, and you don’t have to work too hard about making a comment or a judgement about it. The audience will be more than willing to do that for themselves.”

info: Gwen In Purgatory plays at Belvoir Theatre from July 31.

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