Centre for Research in Creative and Performing Arts

A Forest Dark

Research workshop on opera exploring experience of transition into a care home

On 24 to 25 July 2017, a two day research workshop, leading to an experimental performance, was held in the Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts at the University of Sussex. It explored the experience of transition into a care home towards the end of life, and how the challenges of this new world can be expressed through music and words.

Co-devised by Prof Jackie Cassell, Prof Ed Hughes and theatre maker Peter Cant.

Music by Ed Hughes.

Libretto by Peter Cant.

Directed by Peter Cant.

The workshop involved professional and amateur musicians with personal experience and knowledge of care homes, dementia and scabies at the end of life.

We are grateful to everyone involved for allowing us to share some provisional outcomes from this experimental workshop in which musicians sang through words/testimony volunteered by participants in Prof Cassell's research. These were, in turn, shaped into an initial narrative by Peter Cant and set to music by Ed Hughes.

We want to develop this work into a participatory musical experience focussing on the common yet hidden experiences of dementia, and of outbreaks of infection in care homes for the frail elderly.  We hope to explore how the forms of narrative and music can be used to understand and address these existential challenges of closed communities, from multiple perspectives.

Director Peter Cant and Prof Jackie Cassell in research workshop [please do not use without asking Ed Hughes in Music]Director Peter Cant and Prof Jackie Cassell in research workshop with scabies garment

A Forest Dark - 'singing through' the new work at the Attenborough Centre [please refer use to Ed Hughes]A Forest Dark - 'singing through' at the Attenborough Centre




DIANA, a retired schoolteacher, is facing challenges. She no longer recognises her surroundings and thinks she is in a dark forest, expressing her confusion in the words of Dante which she taught during her career. Her husband, JEFFREY, recounts growing difficulty  to his daughter JUDITH.

JEFFREY recalls DIANA’s fall which led to her decline. JOY the care home assistant reassures JEFFREY, but then alerts JUDITH to a new problem - DIANA is feeling itchy. JOY recalls her own experience of being treated for scabies as a small child.

DIANA, now suffering intolerable itching and increasingly confused, expresses her agony through a vision of people scratching uncontrollably in Dante’s Inferno Circle 8 where this is the punishment of alchemists and quacks. JOY, JUDITH and JEFFREY try to understand what she is saying. JUDITH recounts the nursing home’s unavailing efforts at solving the problem. DIANA, desperate for relief,  expresses her longing for death as knocking on the door of the earth to be let in, drawing on Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale.

Finally in an epilogue a JUNIOR DOCTOR describes visiting the scene in the home and finally declaring the scabies outbreak, allowing the spell of itching to be broken at last.


DIANA (wife): Melanie Sanders

JEFFREY (husband): John Hancorn

JUDITH (daughter): Liz Webb

JOY (care-home assistant): Katie Hawks



Piano: Will Hancox

Lighting: Lee Kennedy

Composer: Ed Hughes

Librettist and Director: Peter Cant


Supported by

The Research Opportunities Fund (University of Sussex)

The Brighton and Sussex Medical School

The Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts