It’s the habit, maybe the right, of the young not to care about the anxieties of the old and not to listen to their advice. Old people reminisce about how good it was to be young. They complain about how good the young have got it. It’s easy for the young to look at the old as ‘other’, and it would be a sad twentysomething who could fully contemplate the inevitability and the realities of ageing. But we are all going to be old. We are. And maybe for a long time. ‘Old age’ isn’t some brief, self-contained entity anymore (maybe it never was); as people get much better at not dying, even old age has its own periods of youth and senescence.
81 year old Virgie (Marty Cruickshank), an artist with two children, alienates her family and friends by deciding she wants to kill herself. Her sister Shirley and friends Tom and Sonia try to stop her. April De Angelis’ play acknowledges the fact of our ageing population. Even the first minutes challenged an embarrassing prejudice I hadn’t realised I held, when I assumed that the two women on stage were coevals when in fact they were mother and daughter. I’d just lumped everything beyond middle age, beyond the point of hoary hair, into one big parcel of ‘oldness’.
Care for old people is an urgent and topical theme to address. De Angelis confronts the tendency to talk down to the old, as if somehow their age diminishes their agency and makes them less of a person. Virginia decides she wants to commit suicide and her family refuses to accept that it’s a decision made with full mental capacity. This skirts the edges of society’s difficulties dealing with mental health – there is a slippery boundary between sanity and not: is Virgie’s suicide wish enough in itself to warrant the diagnosis of…whatever diagnosis will send her to a nursing home?
The greater punishment for Virgie is not her suicide (which she has control over) but being exiled to a nursing home. When that happens, it highlights the dreadful power that the young have over the senile. During one of only two really powerful moments, as daughter Haydn (the fantastic Veronica Roberts) wreaks a small act of revenge against her now helpless mother, there’s a vicious, sadistic bit of me that enjoys her post-stroke suffering, or thinks she deserves it. Virgie is the symbol of a mother; it’s hard to forgive a mother who treats her children as callously as Virgie treats hers.
Big theme number two is precisely that role of the mother. The clue’s in the title – if Electra’s involved, there’s bound to be some messed up mother/daughter stuff going on. Though the title hints at more Greek tragic elements than there are, still some themes bleed through into this modern tragedy of sorts. Virgie is a tragic heroine because she is unnatural. She flouts natural law by putting her art first and by being unable to love her children, and so we can see her end coming. De Angelis cuts to the cold heart of the issue: ‘You’re her mother’ says Tom, Virgie’s actor friend. Virgie replies: ‘I’m also a person in my own right.’
The fraught relationship between Virgie and Haydn is uncomfortable to watch. Is it really the case that she would have had to sacrifice herself to bring up her daughter in a way that made them love each other? And what if Virgie is supposed to represent the arts, as opposed to her bureaucratic, business-minded sister? What message does that send? If Virgie stands for all artists, then god help us all.
Is that privileging of her art over her children a feminist act? It doesn’t seem like an aspect of Virgie’s character that is supposed to be sympathetic. But the play’s female characters do keep pulling away from traditional gender roles, even if those non-traditional roles do not make for pleasant characters. Sonia cuts herself while washing up – perhaps a message from some divine feminist power, maybe Artemis the Virgin goddess (from which word Virginia gets her name) intervening in the lives of women to urge them to be better than merely pot-washers.
While it may be clever, the play is not perfect, not by a long stretch. Too many boring husband-bashing jokes are thrown into a dull succession of drawing room exchanges of wit, and it often feels worn and tired. The late addition of a lower-class cab driver for us all to laugh at is just perplexing. But then De Angelis throws out a line that shows she knows exactly what she’s doing: Virgie acknowledges the whole situation as being ‘a sentimental middle class fiction.’
With these whining characters on stage, it becomes almost easy to sympathise with that fiction, with Virgie’s decision. When it’s reduced to the provincialism of a small family unit that you can’t escape, and you’re old and bored and immobile, maybe the death wish is understandable. These horrible people, moaning about their husbands or mothers or their jobs or their boredom or their new sofa or the film they saw at the weekend or their friends or other people’s happiness or how tired they are or how the timer wasn’t working at the bus stop or how there’s no phone signal or the cost of KitKats these days or the internet or the government or immigrants or noisy neighbours or the Archers or the bank queue or how the Large Hadron Collider might kill us all or iOS 8…it’s really depressing. We build this world for ourselves and then complain about having to live in it. Can’t we just be more positive?
Haydn and the others try positivity, though. They try to hold up for Virgie’s sake. And the result? Forced pleasantries, repression. It’s even worse than before. There’s at least a cathartic sense of grim satisfaction in constantly complaining. That’s why the Daily Mail is so popular.
It’s easy to be flippant but actually the prospect of getting old and then dying is really scary. Our lives are, in Jonathan Franzen’s words, “brief tenures on Earth bracketed by infinities of nothingness”. Virgie bucks the instinct of eking out as much of that tenure as possible, and she treats her family and friends not with love but with selfishness, under some kind of banner of feminism. The biggest problem with the play: there’s no heart. Amid the misery and gloom is one joyous moment, when Shirley, Sonia and Haydn whip out drums and bang out all their frustrations. Apart from that, it’s a group of selfish people – although all very well acted – moaning at each other.