utilities

Telling the story of dementia

Barney Norris

Over the next two months, my new play Visitorsa story about a family struggling to cope with dementia, will be touring the country. Visitors is a play about many things – it’s a love story, a lament, a window into a rural world – but it’s also an attempt to start conversations about the challenges faced by people living with dementia and their families, the extreme emotions they live with on a daily basis, the joy and sadness they encounter as they face up to their condition. I think it’s a subject everyone ought to be talking about.

‘What threatens middle England?’

In the summer of 2012, I conducted an exploratory workshop at Salisbury Playhouse to collect material for my play. Looking to focus my research, I asked the legendary theatre director Max Stafford-Clark what story he would tell if he was exploring and dramatising the wilds of Wiltshire. Max has been nurturing the work of playwrights for many years, having launched the careers of writers including Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Sebastian Barry and many others, and I thought there was no one better to ask for advice. Max’s reply was immediate – he asked me, ‘what threatens middle England?’

up-in-arms-visitorsI didn’t have an answer straight away – or rather, I had too many. I thought of the recession, of climate change, of the future of religion, of love and death and everything that always presses in on us. What became ever clearer as I worked on my play, though, was that age above all was the story that needed telling in Wiltshire. My home county has a significant elderly population, many of whom are living longer than they perhaps expected to. It‘s at the forefront of a dominant trend in our present society, and that trend begs some urgent questions:

  • Are we ready for these longer lives?
  • Are we able to maintain the quality of people’s lives to the best level possible?

One way of asking these questions I found was to write a play about a woman who needed the kind of help we are going to be called upon ever more frequently to give.

I found dementia to be a poignantly dramatic subject as I worked on the play. It’s a condition that leads people to ask big questions.


Visitors sets out to examine the difficulty of living your life well, and to ask how we might best live our lives. These questions are rendered dramatic and urgent when asked by someone confronting the end of their life, and I found dementia to be a poignantly dramatic subject as I worked on the play. It’s a condition that leads people to ask big questions. The biggest question I have tried to ask with my story is whether we, as a society, do enough of the right things to support people with the condition. I hope the play will start new conversations on that subject.

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