Binge Fringe Magazine

REVIEW: When We Died, Carbon Theatre, Prague Fringe 2024 ★★★★★

Content Warning: Many references to sexual violence.

Presented with the body of the man who raped her just under a year ago, an Embalmer prepares to say her final goodbyes to this man who inflicted so much trauma onto her, and meanwhile gets the chance to confront his wife and tell her about the hell she’s lived through since it all happened. This dynamic, heart-breaking thriller unpacks. the deep wounds of trauma through incredible creative design, entrancing body movement, and top tier narrative storytelling. It is an endlessly inventive and utterly engrossing piece of theatre.

The through-line of the piece is the Embalmer explaining the process of preserving the body in front of her, performed with fluid, eye-catching physical moments that performer Alexandra Donnachie inflicts on herself. Her movements act sometimes as small embellishments to the narrative, short but sharp wounds that add a flair to the story, and at times as it’s bracing central thread – as we watch her peel down eyelids and massage fluid that flows around her abuser’s body.

These movement sections continue into the flip side of the story, where we see the Embalmer recount her repeated interactions with her abuser, from awkward conversations at party to the fateful event which has inflicted so much onto her soul. The movements here are reflected from the embalming scenes, but serve a much different purpose – to highlight the social and personal rituals we go through to endure and understand our traumas and their place in our daily lives. It is a truly harrowing account told with such care and patience from Donnachie, who commands the stage throughout the performance.

Donnachie is flanked by bars of LED lighting which transform colours and patterns throughout, at first providing a backdrop and then finding the Embalmer coming to interact with them in the more gripping later sections of the piece, as she comes closer to her final confrontation with her abuser’s wife. As this moment happens, the nightmarish thriller nature of the first two acts dissipates into confronting reality, as the Embalmer comes to see the humans on the other side of her abuser’s life, and ponders how much it would shatter them to find out the truth.

Throughout there is a soundscape of industrial noise, a hum that cornices the gaps in between the Embalmer’s recounting of this story, and which harnesses the surreal and macabre realities of her job. The creative design is continuously thoughtful and inventive, creating an enthralling world-scape for the piece to breathe within.

Moral complications run rife through the blood of this piece – from the questions the Embalmer faces preserving the body of someone she had such a horrific relationship with, to the impact of living insularly after moments of trauma on both victims and those around them, all the way to that fateful question of who deserves to know the truth when these events affect everyone involved. This piece is not a campaigning one though, much more expressive than that, and asking us to ground this disgraceful assault in the experiences of those affected in a truly corporeal, first-person sense.

I found it hard not to be gripped the entire way through, the style of storytelling feels at first like that of a thriller, but beneath that veneer is a sensitive and soulful understanding at the themes of hand. The decision to hold the theatre as a space for ponderance and recovery after the show’s conclusion shows how profoundly Carbon Theatre care for their audience’s welfare in this piece, and all at once they are able to tell an absorbing tale of how we relate to the traumatic experiences that come to shape our lives. We are asked to look directly at the bodies and movements of those involved in a forensic manner, but not to investigate, to empathise, and to understand.

Donnachie is a masterful storyteller, with piercing movements tracing the realities of inflicted wounds on our bodies and souls. Utterly engrossing and endlessly inventive – this thriller unpacks the deep wounds of trauma through incredible creative design.

Recommended Drink: Definitely don’t drink the embalming fluid – I think the descriptions of it pumping around a cadaver will make me shudder for some time to come.

Performances of When We Died have now concluded at Prague Fringe. Keep up with Carbon Theatre online for future showings.

Jake Mace

Our Lead Editor & Edinburgh Editor. Jake loves putting together reviews that try to heat-seek the essence of everything they watch. They are interested in New Writing, Literary Adaptations, Musicals, Cabaret, and Stand-Up. Jake aims to cover themes like Class, Nationality, Identity, Queerness, and AI/Automation.

Festivals: EdFringe (2018-2023), Brighton Fringe (2019), Paris Fringe (2020), VAULT Festival (2023), Prague Fringe (2023-24), Dundee Fringe (2023)
Pronouns: They/Them