Bringing the bittersweet love story of living with dementia to life

The Malta premiere of Matthew Seager’s In Other Words opens on Friday at Theatre Next Door. Laura Bonnici chats with stars Denise Mulholland and Jes Camilleri to find out how they are bringing this bittersweet love story of living with dementia to life

Jes Camilleri and Denise Mulholland | Photo Emma Micallef
Jes Camilleri and Denise Mulholland | Photo Emma Micallef

This weekend, The Shrinking Violets return with their first show in three years. And true to form, their choice of play is a poignant premiere that spotlights both the joy of lifelong love, and the cruelty of a mind slowly stolen away by dementia. 

Matthew Seager’s In Other Words follows Arthur and Jane, whose love story has blossomed since they first met – or ‘the incident’, as they call it now. But times, and their minds, have changed. Taking an intimate, humorous and deeply moving journey through married life to the music of Frank Sinatra, the play explores the realities of Alzheimer's disease and the transformative power of music. 

“I read the script and thought it would be a great Violets show,” says Denise Mulholland, who stars as Jane and is one of the five leading female theatre practitioners who make up The Shrinking Violets, alongside Chiara Hyzler, Maria Buckle, Jo Caruana and Cathy Lawlor. “The storyline was also familiar to me: my beautiful mum died from Alzheimer’s almost six years ago, so the subject is pertinent. The play handles the slow decline into Alzheimer’s with such delicacy and care. My dad was the principal carer for my mum for years and the love they had for each other was so obvious, even in the darkest moments. The couple in In Other Words have a similar, enduring love that is inspiring and heart-breaking. Jane faces the challenges head on, not from a sense of duty or obligation, but because she loves Arthur with every fibre of her being.” 

Joining Mulholland in her much-anticipated return to performance is Jes Camilleri as Arthur, both directed by fellow Violet Chiara Hyzler. “I have been a fan of the Violets from the start,” he says. “It's a great honour to work alongside Denise in this intimate two-hander – I couldn't ask for a better opportunity. And Chiara has brought a fresh yet professional approach to the rehearsal room that is challenging me to move beyond my comfort zone.” 

“Quite simply, I’m loving rehearsals so far,” agrees Mulholland. “Matthew Seager writes with great humour and has found moments of levity despite the play’s serious nature, so we have plenty of laughs (and tears). It’s also more than a little daunting as the play is challenging in many ways, but I am trying to focus on the excitement rather than the terror!” 

Indeed, portraying Alzheimer’s on stage brought challenges. “Alzheimer's disease is a horrible disease and I realised that I knew very little about it before I took on this role,” Camilleri admits. “I have been watching videos of Alzheimer's patients as well as talking to relatives of people suffering from the disease and they are providing invaluable input. I share a common passion for music with Arthur and that allows me to connect easily with how he uses music as both a means of escape and a place of solace.” 

Since music plays such an important part in the story – enhanced by original soundscapes created by Matteo Depares – the Violets also researched the connection between music and memory, Mulholland explains. “The song Fly Me To The Moon acts as a trigger for Jane and Arthur. It was playing the first time they danced together and becomes their theme song. As the condition worsens, it remains a way for them to connect with each other.” 

With the collaboration of the Malta Dementia Society, In Other Words is an opportunity to raise awareness about dementia, against the backdrop of a story of love against the odds. “Because of the play’s non-linear nature, we also see Jane and Arthur pre-Alzheimer’s, at their happiest,” she shares. “There are moments of laughter and tenderness juxtaposed against heartbreak. This is a play about the enduring nature of love. It’s a play about hope.” 

The Shrinking Violets production of In Other Words by Matthew Seager will play at Theatre Next Door, Maghtab, on 3-5 and 10-12 February 2023. Tickets are available here. This project is supported by the Arts Council Malta.