This was a play about death; how people cope with it, how
they grieve and how they remember. It was also a play about love and
relationships, finding inspiration in unexpected places and also about science,
genetics and the story of Henrietta Lacks' cells.
Lacks' story and the issue of consent have become hot topics
once again after researchers published the full genome sequence of HeLa cells
last year. This prompted negotiations with the Lacks family who now have
some control (see BioNews 717) over how the information is used. Henrietta
herself was never aware that her cells had been taken, as asking for consent
was not considered necessary in the 1950s.
How to be Immortal laid out three
intertwined storylines set in three different time periods. We learned of
Deborah Lacks, Henrietta Lacks' youngest daughter as she comes to learn about
her mother's life and her legacy, HeLa cells. Much of this involves the
researcher Dr Christoph Lengauer, who was one of the first scientists to
approach the Lacks family to discuss the cells' significance.
We also see an interpretation of
how Dr George Gey and his team of researchers managed to first create the
immortalised HeLa cells. Dr Gey is played for laughs somewhat, as an
egotistical geek who being so wrapped up in the science fails to acknowledge
the cells' human provenance.
Although not directly related to HeLa, perhaps the most
engaging story is of grief-stricken Rosa, who has lost her partner Mick to
cancer. With Rosa's consent, his cells are used in a research project. Flashbacks
show us how the relationship between Rosa and Mick grew before his death. Their
love is often brilliantly brought out with music and it is ultimately a
composition that takes Mick's DNA sequence as inspiration that enables Rosa to
come to terms with her loss.
The narrative is punctuated with explanations of the science
involved. This occasionally jarred a little with the other scenes, but was
preferable to shoehorning complex scientific concepts into the main section of
The play is wonderfully acted by just three actors who seamlessly
switch characters (and accents and costumes). The set is simple but ingenious and the many switches in time and place transition smoothly. Clever use of
lighting instantly transformed a bathroom to a TV set to a laboratory.
But as the story is not told chronologically, I did feel
that in places it was occasionally hard to immediately identify the time period
of each scene. There were also a few moments when the scientific explanations lurched
into hyperbole and cliché.
These are minor quibbles, however, and despite all the talk of death
and loss, the play is not a depressing affair. The humour, music, and warm
portrayals of the characters make it a touching and moving story.
I thoroughly enjoyed the performance and felt that it examined
ethical consent in science and the sometimes strained relationship between
researchers and the public skilfully.
Henrietta Lacks now resides on the fringes of public
consciousness. It can no longer be said that her contribution to science is overlooked;
she is now more famous than many, if not all, of the illustrious scientists who
have worked on her cells. Maybe to compensate for the Lacks family's poor treatment
over the years we are now overly keen to celebrate her role in research. It's almost
as if Lacks was herself a scientist who went unjustly uncredited for her
How to be immortal? It seems it's all about being