There is a lot of talk about diversity within theatre, and for good reason. But seldom do these discussions extend to the subject of age. Indeed, theatre often seems like a young person’s game, with buzzwords such as ‘emerging’, ‘aspiring’ and ‘developing’ frequently invoked to celebrate the latest teenage wunderkinds or break-out graduate companies. What’s more, our theatre culture is teeming with programmes, courses and educational opportunities specifically tailored for young writers and directors while institutions such as National Youth Theatre and the Royal Court’s Young Writers Program exist to cultivate fledgling talent. In other words, it pays to be wet behind the ears when it comes to making headway in theatre.
Of course, it would be a mistake to overlook the various pathways open to those theatregoers and artists of advanced years. Discount tickets for over-60s and pioneering initiatives such as the community-focused Meet Me at the Albany are worth celebrating. Nevertheless, there remains an age-based bias that is seldom addressed. Indeed, if we view theatre’s age divide through the prism of the diversity questions (as I believe we should) then we can see just how often the issue itself is so readily brushed aside.
All of which makes the mission statement of ‘Visible’ – a new ensemble company formed of older actors – even more urgent and necessary. As their collective moniker implies, Visible seeks to redress the imbalance of representation by placing the passions, fears, desires and anxieties of older people centre-stage. For their debut production, Who Do We Think We Are?, Artistic Director Sonja Linden has devised a performance that draws upon the ancestral histories and personal testimonies of its ten-strong cast.
We travel backwards in a time capsule to a Siberian prison camp in post-revolutionary Russia, a compound in colonial-era India and a tiny hamlet in rural Wales, to name but a few. The soft strings of cellist Francesca Ter-Berg underscore these memory-scapes as we drift dreamily in and out of each scene. Many of these vignettes focus overwhelmingly on the impact of war on ordinary lives with the plight of returning soldiers scarred from conflict serving as large point of focus. While it’s impossible to deny the sincerity of feeling that each actor brings to these stories, there remains a curious lack of emotional weight to the overall shape of the production. This is more of a dramaturgical shortcoming then a failing on the actors’ part; the scenes are too scant, the characters not sufficiently developed and the result is a series of hastily drawn sketches and impressions.
Despite the obvious talent displayed by the ensemble, it’s difficult to shake off the feeling that in choosing to focus overwhelmingly on the act of looking back, Sonja Linden and company have opted for the cosier option for their inaugural production. It’s a collection of arresting performances hamstrung by a tendency towards nostalgia. For example, how refreshing would it be to witness older actors tackling the classics? Or creating new work that addresses the pertinent political issues of the present-day? I know, I know, I should judge the work on it’s own terms and I am sure Visible will continue to expand its reach with each subsequent production. Still, one can’t help feeling that a more forward-looking and urgent choice of subject matter would have better served the mission-statement of this exciting new company.