Victor Esses on The Death & Life of All of Us at Camden People’s Theatre

Photo: Christa Holka

Following a sell-out season at Soho Theatre and great success at the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Victor Esses performs his show The Death & Life of All of Us for a two-week London run at Camden People’s Theatre from 2 to 13 April.

It’s a moving, poignant and charming exploration of intergenerational shame, family secrets, history and what’s left when we’re gone by this Latinx, queer, Jewish-Lebanese theatre maker and performance artist. We caught up with Esses to talk about the show.

Q&A with Victor Esses

What can you tell us about The Death & Life of All of Us?

The Death & Life of All of Us has been over two decades in the making, it’s a deeply personal and yet so universal journey of trying to tell the story of my great aunt Marcelle who left her Jewish community in Lebanon to travel the world with her Italian catholic diplomat husband. Also the time I found her contacts and went to visit her in Rome at the age of 19, whilst discovering my queerness and studying film. So I asked to film her and ask her about her life, which she willingly accepted. This encounter presented me with profound questions about identity and adaptation.

The show also touches on themes of migration and intersectionality, drawing from my own family history and experiences. It invites audiences to reflect on how migration shapes lives and identities, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of humanity.

Working with a multidisciplinary creative team has been a joy, allowing for collaboration and the blending of various artistic elements such as video, music, art, and choreography. Each member of the team contributed to the richness and fullness of this intimate production.

Photo: Christa Holka

At what point in working through your aunt’s story did you realise the potential for a multimedia show like this?

The original idea was to make a documentary about her life. After recording her, I didn’t feel about my framing of her story, and life went on. I then became a performer and a writer and developed my practice. A few years ago, I realized that her story and mine could be interlinked and that her videos didn’t need to live only on the screen. They could take up physical space, gain scale, and I could interact with them, allowing the audience to feel her presence and see her projected many times over. This felt exciting to me, and the idea of being inventive and infusing it with heart, hurt, and beauty was appealing. Bringing Enrico Aurigemma into the project to compose and perform music live also felt exciting and incorporating contemporary art elements by Yorgos Petrou and Jenni Jackson was a game changer.

What’s it like to be taking the show to London following your Edinburgh success?

It’s so wonderful to bring this show back home to London, especially to Camden People’s Theatre, who believed in the idea from the beginning, giving us a seed commission and supporting us throughout. What’s particularly nice about it is that this version of the show is quite different from every work in progress performance we’ve done before. The nature of the show is such that whoever is present in the room really contributes to the mood and experience. This is the longest run I’ve had in London in a while, so it feels special. I appreciate how there are many people here who will be able to relate to the show in personal ways, including Jews, LGBT+ individuals, people with a connection to the Middle East, Italians, LatinX individuals, and so many others. Really, anyone who has ever felt the need to adapt to belong.

Photo: Christa Holka

Was there anything about the reaction to the Edinburgh shows that surprised you?

We received such a warm reception, with tears shed and audiences highly engaged, providing a lot of energy to the space on particular days. Each day offers a different experience, and it was amazing how both older and younger audiences seemed to enjoy it at the same level, connecting with various references and lived histories.

Apart from that, there was a need to add subtitles to Marcelle, my aunt, especially since in some venues, like Edinburgh, audiences seemed to miss a lot of what she was saying. Now, we’re taking it a step further by captioning the entire performance, which means I now need to make sure my lines are just right 😉

Is there anything you hope audiences take away from the show?

I hope The Death & Life of All of Us is an enjoyable and meaningful experience. It delves into the complexities of living authentically and challenges audiences to consider how societal norms shape their sense of self. I hope it helps them reflect on their own journeys of authenticity and identity. I also hope it sparks conversations about migration, intersectionality, and the many facets of human identity.

By sharing my family’s experiences and Marcelle’s story, I aim to foster empathy and understanding for those who navigate intersecting cultural, religious, and ethnic identities.

Lastly, I hope people leave the show feeling connected and accepted. Through Marcelle’s narrative, I strive to create a space where differences are celebrated and embraced. Ultimately, I hope the production encourages audiences to cultivate a more inclusive and loving world.

Victor Esses brings The Death & Life of All of Us to Camden People’s Theatre from 2 to 6 April (7:15pm) and 9 to 13 April (9pm)