From Silver Lining to Roundelay, a handful of new shows focus on elderly people. Let’s hope it leads to lasting change in the way they’re represented on stage
In Sandi Toksvig’s Silver Lining, set in an old people’s home, a woman suffering from dementia sits clutching a box of dildos. They may serve to hint at this character’s past profession, but their real purpose is to raise an easy laugh, playing to the stereotype that old people and sex simply don’t go together. But as shown by a recent report from the English Longitudinal Study on Ageing, those who do continue to be sexually active into their 80s often have greater satisfaction with their sex lives than those in middle age. If Silver Lining unwittingly confirms, rather than subverts, expectations about how older people – particularly women – are seen, then writer Sonja Linden is attempting to make us see them as active sexual beings in Roundelay at Southwark Playhouse.
Roundelay is a new version of La Ronde, produced by Linden’s company Visible, whose name makes a pointed statement about older people in society and on our stages. In the evening’s most charged and tender scene, a younger man brings an elderly woman to orgasm. It reminded me of an exquisite moment in Naomi Wallace’s extraordinary One Flea Spare in which a woman, whose disfigured body has been untouched for 35 years by her husband, is brought alive by another man’s fingers. In many ways, Roundelay – which comes wrapped in an awkward circus motif – doesn’t go far enough. Its milieu is resolutely in the polite niceties of the monied middle classes, and apart from that one scene (and a nice moment when a young woman is appalled to discover that her elderly dad has met his new partner on Tinder), it remains quite coy and tasteful about older people and sex. If you want to see something more challenging and outrageous, then Liz Aggiss’s Slap and Tickle, staged in Manchester and Brighton as part of the Sick! festival, is a far more pointed and bawdily funny exploration of what it means to refuse to act your age.
Linden says that when she founded Visible at the end of 2012, with the specific aim of making work with older actors, there was very little sign of them taking centre stage. Suddenly there’s a spike. The Lyric Hammersmith, London, is hosting the European premiere of Seventeen, Matthew Whittet’s play – first seen at the Belvoir theatre in Sydney – in which its teenage characters look forward to their lives stretching ahead of them. The trick is that the characters are played by veteran actors in their 70s, adding a layer of poignancy as youth and age fold into one.
At the National Theatre, Improbable are producing Lost Without Words. It’s inspired by the fact that while older actors may have spent a lifetime playing characters in plays, as they move into their 70s and 80s, it sometimes becomes harder to remember the lines. Lost Without Words allows them to go off script and learn new skills in an evening that will be improvised at every performance.
With theatre audiences often containing a significant proportion of retired people, there could be box-office appeal in shows that offer them the chance to see themselves portrayed on stage. But does this current trend represent a move towards greater representation of older people in theatre? It will take far more to bring about lasting change. At a time when theatre is becoming far more aware of its lack of inclusiveness in relation to gender, race and economic and social privilege, ageism is often left out of the diversity conversation. But, as Linden says: “It is undoubtedly a diversity issue. Why squander all that talent and experience when we can use it to offer a different view of older people than the one we so often see?”