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The Exit Internationalist

June 29, 2016

Dicing with Dr Death

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Dicing with Dr Death – What the Critics say

Melbourne Comedy Festival

Jim Schrembi, Herald Sun

The Athenaeum Theatre (one show only)

ALAS, in the end, there was no rioting. There were no walkouts or vicious heckles, no arrests or protests. Nobody stormed the stage or threw red paint.

Despite the big head of controversial steam it had built, Dicing With Dr Death — the Comedy Festival show about euthanasia presented by trouble-making campaigner Philip Nitschke — turned out not to be some macabre exercise in bad taste but a sobering, enlightening, surprisingly sedate affair.

And it was funny.

With Derryn Hinch on hand to help demonstrate Nitschke’s new do-it-yourself death machine “destiny” and the police in attendance ready to pounce should he put a foot wrong, Nitschke opened with some gags about trouble at the airport.

Apparently getting the Grim Reaper’s scythe (one of his stage props) through the door was more troublesome that he’d expected.

With a scene-setting montage of news clips and the mood-setting use of Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky as his intro theme — a witty touch, that — Nitschke moved smoothly from joke to anecdote to put everybody in the picture.

Recounting his personal history with euthanasia, his battles with hypochondria and his formative experiences in the Northern Territory, the show was often funny, occasionally touching and always in danger of going south.

Yet it never did.

There was no exploitation of the vulnerable, no patronising of the terminally ill nor pandering to heightened emotions. Even hectoring of his many enemies was kept to a minimum.

Yes, the show had an agenda, yet Nitschke — a self-styled medical maverick, but a careful one — presented his case with such measure, warm humour and intelligence that even his puns were excusable.

One could dare say how even a rabid pro-lifer might have found themselves disarmed by his central message, which was not so much about suicide but about empowerment.

This was the key point Nitschke kept returning to, always to sound rounds of applause.

What terminally ill people demand — all they demand, he insisted — is control over their final hours.

The beautiful irony of this, he explained, is that once people have that, life takes on renewed meaning. This often results in people filing away the suicide option and enjoying a happy final chapter of life that would otherwise have been denied them.

Punching the point powerfully was one gent’s tale of his wife who had contracted multiple sclerosis. It had taken control of her life, he said, but she wasn’t going to let it take control of her death.

She acquired the means to end it all herself yet chose, instead, to live on for several happy years. It was the most lucid and moving moment in the show.

Admittedly, Nitschke was playing to a partisan crowd. The gathering of about 450 — most of them elderly, many on crutches and in wheelchairs — clearly considered him something of a hero judging by the applause and laughs they lavished upon him from the get-go.

Any slamming of the medical establishment was cheerfully received. When Nitschke took off his white doctor’s coat and tossed it to the back of the stage declaring how the medical profession was no longer part of the proceedings, he earned his biggest round of applause.

Even allowing for the easy room, Nitschke deserves kudos for his clever use of gags throughout his narrative, even though his style runs a tad low-brow.

Given all the grave fears circling the show, it turns out that the most dangerous thing about Dicing With Dr Death was Nitschke’s unashamed love of word plays and puns.

“It was the euthanasia issue that saved my life,” he quipped to big laughs. Asking a jovial Texan official about the effectiveness of lethal injections, Nitschke was told, “well, we haven’t had any complaints”. More laughs. As for the use of a guillotine to end it all, not such a good idea, he says, especially for those planning an open-coffin funeral.

Low-flying humour, for sure, but they all hit big.

The early notice about the police presence did give the show a dancing-on-eggshells vibe. Nitschke had to cover himself legally, of course, and had spoken with them about the lines he must observe, lest they take him downtown.

Thus came the true climax of the show, which was not the brief demonstration of Nitschke’s death machine, with Derryn Hinch pressing the button as people watched him die a simulated death.

It was the reading of the show’s “disclaimer/affirmation”, which everybody was given a copy of and had to swear to, hand in air.

It read, in suitably Gothic font: “I acknowledge that none of the information provided in this show will be used in any way to advise, counsel, assist in the act of suicide, either my own, or that of any other person. Alternatively, if I do suicide, I will not in any way link this decision to Dicing with Dr Death!”

Everyone happily took the pledge, many while giggling. The whiff of farce that had suddenly filled the venue was lost on nobody.

Dicing with Dr Death

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