Lost Without Words at the National Theatre, Seventeen at the Lyric Hammersmith, Glenda Jackson in King Lear: productions using older casts are, it seems having a moment. Roundelay at the Southwark Playhouse, created by the company Visible which specifically works with older actors, is another to add to the list. What these productions have in common, along with just using older actors, is that they all in their own way move away from the stereotype of a little old dear tottering around the stage. Seventeen, for instance, uses a cast of septuagenarians to perform as seventeen year olds on the cusp of leaving school and heading into the world. Lost Without Words also uses a similarly bold theatrical conceit, in this case a group of actors performing without script a different show each night, but one that uses their own long experience of theatre.
Sonja Linden, Artistic Director at Visible and author of Roundelay, is clear that this interest in working with actors at an older age was not always so prevalent in theatre.
“When we started in 2012, and it wasn’t really being talked about much in theatre. There was a lot of talk about diversity. And I think that it wasn’t a really apparent that age was also a part of the diversity spectrum.”
Roundelay, however, is significant in not just using an older cast, but in using that cast to perform a play about sex and love at any age. The intention behind the piece was “to be quite provocative,” she starts off. “I want to challenge our audience to rethink attitudes to older people and what it means to be an older person.”
Inspired by La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler, Linden’s new work takes the same structure of the original, where a series of overlapping couples meet in a formation that eventually competes a circle. Or, to use her explanation: “you start with A, and A meets B, and then B meets C, and then you come round full circle and get back A.” The play, however, is not just challenging in terms of its picture of older people in relation to sex, but also in terms of expected physicality. Using by the circular motif, Roundelay is set in a circus with a series of intermezzi breaking up the scenes between the characters. In these, all of the cast including the two younger members perform circus-related routines.
“It was to sort of challenge the audience to see what older people can do in terms of physicality and humour and fun,” Linden explains. She wanted to have all the cast on stage at once so as to “impress people with the diversity and range of older people.” Although the idea of sex and old people is the more overtly shocking element of the production, Roundelay is as much about relationships and love as it about physical expressions of attraction. Linden states that:
“I’m dealing with love in many ways. It could be falling in love at a later age, it could be discovering that you thought you were a heterosexual after a long marriage, but maybe there was lurking inside you the feeling that you might be gay. It could be the loss of love, so there are lots of different kinds of love in the play.”
Since Roundelay works on the assumption that the idea of older people having sex is not a subject British society finds comfortable, I ask Linden why she thinks this might be the case. “I think that sex and sexuality, which is very explicit in our Western society, is very much (and to a certain extent understandably) linked with youth. Youth and beauty.” This in turn extends to a fear of seeing signs of aging, a fear capitalised on by the beauty industry. In the playwright’s opinion:
“I think that is a huge cultural preoccupation; there’s a multi-billion pound industry connected to that and we live in a very visual age. We’re saturated with images, and airbrushed images to boot. I think that therefore the idea of coupling with older bodies… it’s sort of a disconnect for a lot of people.”
The very idea of visibility for older bodies is one that’s integral to the theatre company where Linden is Artistic Director. Indeed, it’s actually named ‘Visible’. Another, ongoing piece of work for the company is the Wardrobe Project. This began last year and involves six older female actors who were paired with six other women from the local community. Functioning as documentary theatre, the idea is to “interview them in front of their wardrobe and in so doing start a conversation about ‘how do they feel now?’ Do they feel they are invisible; when did that start? Have they changed their clothing habits; what does that mean? Do they still feel they have a sexual identity?”
It’s easy to see how this piece of verbatim theatre links with Roundelay, and to see the same themes recurring through the company’s work. In a wider sense, though, Visible was set up to create what Linden terms “meaningful roles.” The experience of Linden’s friend as an older female trying to continue working in the industry made her aware that “very often the only roles offered to someone of her age [late 70s] would be to play a little old lady, and possibly a little old lady with a blue rinse. And possibly a little old lady with a blue rinse and Alzheimer’s.”
Whilst illness and death is undeniably a part of old age, it’s not the part Linden wants to focus on. A recurrent comment she made when I talk to her is how she wanted Roundelay and the other work created by Visible to be energetic, engaged and to involve a significant degree of theatricality (hence the circus idea). Yet coupled with this fun is something arguably more exciting. It’s potentially disrupting how we think about sex in a wider sense – it’s subversive but perhaps not in the way that we immediately imagine.
“I think in today’s world to be considered to be very sexual explicit is no longer scandalous. But I think that perhaps what is considered scandalous or what is a taboo is this idea of older people continuing to have relationships or sex.”
It’s an idea that the critically acclaimed Amazon series Transparent has also visited. Along with more explicit scenes involving sex toys and the over-arching narrative about trans identities, the programme consistently challenges expectations by making sex and love an entirely relevant part of its older character’s lives. With average life spans expanding like never before, it feels like theatre’s foray into the subject is happening at the right time. Ageing theatre audiences will be able to see themselves represented on stage, rather than being expected to flock to bland rehashes of old shows with new casts. And the only thing we won’t be hearing is: ‘No sex please, we’re retired.”
Roundelay is on at the Southwark Playhouse until 18 March 2017. Click here for more details.