Taking Judith Butler’s assertion that identity is ‘culturally constructed’ where ‘bodies are understood as passive recipients of an inexorable cultural law’ , this dissertation will seek to explore the ways and methods by which theatre and contemporary performance can interrogate and challenge age identity:
The reconceptualization of identity as an effect, that is, as produced or generated, opens up possibilities of “agency” that are insidiously foreclosed by positions that take identity categories as foundational and fixed.
In Gender Trouble Butler suggests that identity is ‘an effect’ generated by the prevailing cultural narratives. Age studies theorists have taken Butler’s model and applied it to examine the effects of age ideology and the master narrative of decline.
Cultural Theorist and Pioneer of Age Studies, Margaret Morganroth Gullette describes the master narrative of decline as:
An invisible producer of economic differences, an omnipresent regulator of age-inflected discourses, a constant pressure on our life time … The master narrative starts … as a story of progress and becomes a peak-and-(early)-decline story … According to the prevailing script, even if we also make progress, we are supposed to internalise decline as our dominant private age identity.
The master narrative of decline Gullette refers to is the intangible, though nevertheless dominant cultural story that encourages us to view age and ageing in terms of isolation, loss, dependence, frailty and reduced mental capacity. This master narrative of decline informs the prevailing discourses surrounding age and ageing in our culture and doing so shapes our own selfhood and identity. These prevailing discourses are perpetuated further by the dominant scripts of age which are present in artistic works, reproduced in theatres, cinemas and on our television screens.
This dissertation draws on the theories of Gullette, and those of others, including Judith Butler, who maintains that our identity is predetermined by a ‘hegemonic cultural discourse’ ; Kathleen Woodward, who suggests that ‘the older female body has been significant only in terms of its absence’ ; Valerie Barnes Lipscomb, who asserts that theatre is a ripe and ‘fertile ground’ for the exploration of ageing ; and Anne Basting, who affirms that ‘the whole life course and the relationships between generations’ are paramount if we are to ‘dislodge ourselves from the narrative of decline’ . This dissertation will argue, following Gullette, that there is a ‘way out of the narrative of decline if one recognises that decline is an ideology, learns more about its techniques, and invents resistances’ . Performance has interrogated prevalent cultural ideologies in other areas, such as gender and race, but performative practices examining age have received little attention or investigation . In accepting Gullette’s progressive proposal for a ‘way out’ this dissertation will show that performance can offer distinctive and effective strategies to resist and counter the decline ideologies associated with age.
There is nowhere more apparent than the contemporary stage for exploring issues surrounding age and ageing. By its very nature, age is performative – the primary medium of theatrical performance is the human body – and age plays a vital role in the audience’s perception of a performance. The performer has a chronological age and a performative fictional age which, in turn, is projected onto the text of their body for the audience to read and interpret. As such, the performer’s age becomes an important aspect in the audience’s search for meaning during the theatrical event.
Additionally, theatre is bound by the master narrative which appears in many specific and differentiated versions, depending on whether it is ‘told by or about men, women, various classes, races, sexualities, ethnicities’. As a sign system, theatre draws on these codes and signifiers, which pertain to our identities and course through our everyday lives. Gullette asserts that the master narrative of decline is ‘omnipresent’ in all those cultural scripts which govern our lives . As theatre engages with these cultural scripts, then it is expected that the master narrative of decline will be drawn upon frequently in plays and performance. The mode of theatre is then inextricably linked in presenting and propagating normative age ideologies on the performative stage. However, this is not to say that performance cannot examine and question such ideologies. Indeed, if performance can capture and present the contradictions and complexities inherent in normative scripts of age then it also has the innate capability to disrupt and subvert them.
Through the liveness of the event, the medium of performance can present the ‘absent’ aged body, in its full vitality, to an audience. The sheer mental and physical demands that theatre makes on its performers, goes some way to challenge the representation of older people as frail and weaker than their younger counterparts. The liveness associated with performance allows older performers to demonstrate a ‘fullness of self’ rather than a diminished sense of self which aligns ageing with decline . The focus on the performance of all ages in our communities, rather than segregating the older age groups, offers some resistance to the narrative of decline and the intimacy of theatre offers an insight into the ‘lived’ experiences of older people – facilitating a sense of community – not just on the stage, but amongst the audience in the auditoriums. Theatre and performance offer a ‘fertile ground’ by which to explore age as it is continually interested with making and exploring meaning by the performer with the audience, and amongst the audience members in our communities. Connections can be drawn between the uniqueness of the audience’s responses to performance and our individual experiences of age and ageing. We all interpret theatrical performance differently due to our own identities, experiences and beliefs, in the same way that ageing is a highly personal experience and dependent on our genetics, lifestyle choices and socio-political factors.
Taking Gullette’s definition of the narrative of decline, this dissertation will examine the ways in which live contemporary performance attempts to express the wide range of ‘lived’ experiences of older people and the counter-narratives that contemporary performance offers as resistance to normative age narratives and decline ideologies. Turning to Kathleen Woodward’s work on visibility and the absence of the ageing body, my first chapter will focus on the autobiographical performance of Liz Aggiss, Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. In examining new writing, my second chapter will focus on Lovesong by Abi Morgan (2011) and Autobiographer by Melanie Wilson (2011), in view of Lipscomb’s claim that theatre offers a potential site of discovery in re-scripting age narratives. My third chapter explores the ‘age effects’ that are generated from cross-age casting; using the theories of Anne Basting, I will compare and contrast two contemporary reworkings of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for an aged cast. The two texts that I will be examining are Sean O’Connor and Tom Morris’ Juliet and Her Romeo (2010) and Ben Power’s A Tender Thing (2009 and then revived by the RSC in 2012).
The selection of performers, texts and reworkings have been selected not just because they feature prominent older performers or personas but because they contribute a degree of resistance to the master narrative of decline and offer a rich discussion and array of responses to the debates surrounding age and ageing.
‘Recovering the body from the library’: Autobiographical Performance
Turning to the work of Kathleen Woodward and the notion that ‘the older female body has been significant only in terms of its absence’ , and considering Judith Butler’s assertion that identity is ‘culturally constructed’ , this chapter interrogates the presentation of age in autobiographical performance and the counter-narratives that this mode of performance offers to the master narrative of decline.
In analysing the extent to which autobiographical performance is capable of troubling normative age narratives and offering alternate stories around ageing – which seem to challenge and at times, reinforce beliefs relating to age – this chapter looks closely at the autobiographical performances of three female performers over the age of sixty-five. Considering the work of Liz Aggiss, and Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver of Split Britches, I examine the structure and features of autobiographical performance and its capacity to offer alternative ageing narratives and resistance to Gullette’s master narrative of decline.
Following Woodward’s assertion that older women are ‘virtually unrepresentable in mainstream visual media’, this piece of writing will explore the ways that these artists use the properties of live performance, and more specifically autobiographical performance to counter the master narrative of decline with reference to the visibility of the female ageing body and sexual identity, the public presentation of the private struggles of the ageing self and the physical and mental strength, as opposed to frailty and weakness associated with old age, that performance demands of its artists.
In the contemporary Postdramatic Theatre, influentially detailed by Hans T Lehmann, there is often a focus on ‘the performer as a theme and protagonist’ . In these types of autobiographical ‘postdramatic’ performances the linear narrative and fictional setting are absent, or placed in implicit quotation marks, and the performer’s body and persona become the central content of the work and the focus of its politics. The performer makes ‘herself’ the primary focus of their audience, and in embracing the risk that is associated with live performance, exposes her unique physical form and selfhood. As such, an aged autobiographical performer reveals herself as a symbol of cultural diversity, of liveness and most importantly, of visibility – a real representation of the ageing body and the lived experience of an older person.
Furthermore, autobiographical performances are inevitably informed by the liveness of the event, the identity and politics of the performer and the way in which the audience relates to the performer during the event. The performer becomes a subject ’embodied in time and space’, with her own story and culture . Writing on age identity and the performance of age, Gullette argues that:
Expressivity is an ontological property that grows over time, visibly, through our default bodies. This is not a property of its owner in isolation but is read through the social (the spectator’s perception in relation to our symbolic age codes and the actors’ ability to play with the codes)’ .
Autobiographical performance then invites the audience to be ‘active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs’ . The audience is encouraged to draw meaning from that which is presented to them through performance. Lehmann highlights that in theatre of this kind ‘spectators are no longer just filling in the predictable gaps’ but instead are asked to ‘reflect on their own meaning-making’ and furthermore find ‘the political’ in their own perception of the performance, ‘in art as a poetic interruption of the law and therefore of politics’ . By leaving space for the spectator to search and engage with the performer, the spectator becomes implicitly involved in the meaning-making process of the performance.
Consequently, autobiographical performance, presented and devised by older performers may have the potential to disrupt the normative figure of ‘an older person’ and as such trouble existing assumptions and social ‘scripts’ surrounding the ageing body. Deirdre Heddon describes autobiographical performance as able to ‘capitalise on theatre’s unique temporality, its here and nowness, and on its ability to respond to and engage with the present, while always keeping an eye on the future’ . In view of this, autobiographical performance potentially opens a discourse between spectator and performer in revealing otherwise invisible lives and voices which are silenced by the dominant cultural narratives.
‘Recovering myself’: Liz Aggiss
Performance artist Liz Aggiss, who trained as a dancer, has labelled herself the ‘enfant terrible of the bus pass generation’ . In giving herself this title, she has acknowledged the cultural stereotype of free travel by bus as a highlight for those over the age of sixty-five, while also declaring her resistance to convention and her desire to challenge perceptions of what is permissible behaviour for a sixty-five-year-old female. In her solo performance, The English Channel (2013), Aggiss focuses on her own autobiography and the artists and movements from popular culture, dance, music and film who have shaped and determined the body that she boldly and proudly presents to her audience.
The English Channel begins with Aggiss entering the performance space covered by a sheet which leaves only her legs exposed; on her feet she wears a pair of stillettos. Moving in a stylised and angular fashion, Aggiss then places a human skull on the floor which remains there for the duration of the performance. Parodying Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the skull is a symbol of our own mortality and a physical reminder of the finality of death. However, Aggiss manages to usurp any preconceptions around old age and death by playfully acknowledging and incorporating the skull into her performance. Holding a microphone to the skull, Aggiss pauses before resuming her energetic and highly physical performance. Aggiss refuses to give a voice or identity to the skull – representing death, decay and decline – instead she juxtaposes her own muscular, visually striking and very much alive body alongside it.
In presenting her sixty-five-year-old body through performance and dance, Aggiss is revealing the ‘unseen’ physical form of an older woman to her audience. Aggiss’ body is so visually remarkable because it is a female body that we are not familiar with, that we do not have access to and one that is often invisible in our culture. Aggiss does not have the body of an archetypal dancer which could be described as slim, lithe and youthful; equally importantly, she does not have the body which would reflect an older woman – frail, elderly and faltering – as projected by the master narrative of decline. Aggiss manages to occupy a unique position in that she represents the personal and corporeal transgression of a mature post-menopausal solo female dancer. Choreographer Carol Brown expands this idea further:
The exclusive practices of dance refuse admission to the ‘unbound’ body. That is the body that exceeds our expectations of a dancerly body: a fleshy body, an ageing body, a chaotic, undisciplined body, an abject body and a body of ambiguous sex. Feminists have demonstrated how dominant constructions of meaning deny visibility to certain kinds of bodies and certain modes of experience.
Live autobiographical performance lends itself to exposing the ‘unbound’ ageing body as there is no place for retakes, the employment of lens filters or editing tools, and the entire body can be seen by the audience from most angles. As such, the performative ageing body offers an escape ‘from the bodiless overemphasis on the plasticity of bodies, from the neglect of age as a construct’ and instead celebrates ‘on stage the “meatiness” of bodies’ in their full, distinctive and stark vividness .
The unique relationship between autobiographical performance and marginalised groups, such as older people, is not co-incidental. Autobiographical performance allows a ‘marginalised subject’ to take ‘centre stage’ as a way of revealing unseen bodies, uncovering ‘invisible lives’ in order to ‘become, instead, speaking subjects with self-agency’ . Notably, Aggiss’ work, following her 25-year collaboration with the choreographer and composer Billy Cowie (1980 – 2005), has been a primarily autobiographical endeavour, in that she manages every aspect of the performance-making herself: conception, production, writing, choreography, direction and administration.
Aggiss establishes the older female body as significant, and through her autobiographical performance the aged body is no longer absent but is palpably present, brought into the here and now. Discussing the creative process behind devising her performance, Aggiss states:
I like to recover the body from the library. My library if you like. Unpicking myself – which means I’m looking back at myself – referring to my own personal archive, which means that I am recovering myself.
During the act of ‘recovering’ herself, Aggiss is making reference to finding and regaining possession of her own selfhood, as an older woman, by looking back at, and forwards to, her lived experience. By offering the comparison of her body being stored like a periodical or book in a library, she is aligning the way that the dominant cultural decline narrative views older, post-menopausal women as closed objects and finished novels, that can be archived and put away. Aggiss disrupts this notion by opening her story, her autobiography to the audience through the liveness of performance. On postdramatic images of the body in live performance, Lehmann states that:
‘the body did not have to contend itself with being a signifier but could be an agent provocateur of an experience without meaning, an experience aimed not at the realisation of a reality and meaning but at the experience of potentiality.
The qualities of live performance, and particularly autobiographical performance, can be ’employed as a generative force’ in a drive ‘to shock, to destroy pretence’ and ‘to break apart traditions of representation’ of the performance of age on the stage. Autobiographical performance exposes the spectator to ‘different kinds of engagement with meaning’ and as such serves to ‘activate audiences’ . Lyn Gardner formerly of The Guardian writes:
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.
Performances made with and about older people serve to promote inclusivity and community in our theatres; while performance continues to explore gender, racial and LBGTQ narratives, scripts around ageing are still largely uncharted. By focusing on the performance across all ages in our communities, we can offer an insight into the ‘lived’ experiences of older people.
‘Unexplored potential’: Lois Weaver
Split Britches cofounder and performance artist Lois Weaver has tackled ‘inclusiveness’ towards older people when performing as her alter-ego, Tammy WhyNot, who she describes as an ‘ageing trailer trash big-wigged blonde’ . In her performance What Tammy Needs to Know About Getting Old and Having Sex (2014) she invites members of her audience, comprised of older people, to join her on stage as themselves, and as integral ‘autobiographical’ components of her performance. These members of the audience take on the roles of Tammy WhyNot’s backing singers and are invited to contribute to the performance by telling short stories. Through this interactive mode of live performance, Lois Weaver opens a conversation with ‘real’ people aged between sixty-five and ninety-five years old about sex and ageing.
Autobiographical performance, which is often interpreted as a solo performance, not only opens up a discourse with between spectator and performer but also vitally enables a dialogue between those who collaborate to make the work. Many artists will work with a dramaturg, a producer, a designer and a director throughout the research and devising elements of the piece; many will also show their work to a preliminary audience at a ‘scratch performance’ or similar as a way of gaining feedback on how they can further revise and develop their work. In view of this then, the autobiographical work is often ‘a collective affair which will have an impact on the representation of that autobiography or the re-presentation of the self’ . The construction of performance can be described as a fertile ground in that it opens a conversation about ageing, not only with the audience who attend the event, but also between the multiple artists who contribute to the shaping of the work:
Although autobiographical performances look, in form, monologic, the public context of their work and the performers’ aspirations to communicate … transform those works into dialogues. Live autobiographical performance takes place not only in shared time, but also in shared space.
Sara Jane Bailes argues that collaboration and the performance making process may be viewed as a ‘system of production, distribution, and exchange’ between artists and creatives and that this ‘communal, fluid sense reminds us of its proximity to other systems of value and exchange, and, equally, of the possibility for change within that system’ . Autobiographical performance offers all parties involved in the making or experience of the live performative event a ‘space’ by which to ‘talk out, talk back and talk otherwise’ about the significance, personal and political, of the rejected, and subsequent absence of the older body . By taking on the playful but direct persona of Tammy WhyNot, Weaver is able to forge a framework and structure, which she utilises as a method of engaging with marginalised community groups, specifically, older people. The older people who join Tammy on stage are called the ‘WhyNots’ and ‘bringing their sexy back’ they perform as themselves, taking on the roles of backing singers and storytellers. The unique liveness of this performance lies in its ability to juxtapose the frailty and profound vulnerability of the participants, alongside their willingness and drive to talk so openly about their sexuality. Adrian Heathfield discusses the impact of using binaries in live performance:
The performing body is often presented as a site of contestation between two opposing dynamics: as a passive recipient of inscription by social institutions, cultural discourses, ideologies and orders of power, and as an active agent through which identity and social relation may be tested, re-articulated and re-made.
In encouraging the ‘WhyNots’ to share their own stories and autobiographies with an audience, the performance becomes a ‘transformational act’ for the performers and their audience ‘contributing to a network of political activity’ . Furthermore, the performative act of stepping out from the shadows of the wings of the performance space and into the gaze of the spectator, can be aligned with the need for further visibility, vitality and representation of older people in our societies and dominant cultural narratives.
In her work as Tammy WhyNot, Weaver has also conducted a series of creative workshops with the residents of Rose Court, an Anchor Care Home in Surrey Quays. Working with this group of older people, Weaver aimed to ‘uncover the buried desires, secret ambitions and unexplored potential’ of the lived experience of the older people and use it as a framework for the creation of their own autobiographical performance. The performances, storytelling and artwork were shared by the residents at a private showing. The showing of the resident’s work serves to promote performative inclusivity and the artistic expression of those older people who live in residential care.
In facilitating this type of performance Lois Weaver, as an ‘older female body’, becomes highly significant in that she assists in opening a cultural text for other older people, who might otherwise have been left isolated and absent. Woodward suggests that ‘one of the most effective ways of creating moral communities and advocating for change around our ageing society’ is to share ‘stories that draw us into the affective worlds of other people’ . Weaver’s facilitation of the artistic work with the older people living in Rose Court is relevant and urgent and assists in aiding us to understand the differing needs, and the varying degrees of physical and mental health affecting individuals, in our ageing population.
‘Performing Realness’: Peggy Shaw
Performance artist and stroke survivor Peggy Shaw is co-founder of Split Britches Theatre Company alongside Lois Weaver. Split Britches have been performing internationally since 1980 – originally building their work on a ‘feminist, democratic DIY aesthetic’ – now they are two of the foremost figures in queer performance art and lesbian identity’ . Following a stroke in 2011, Peggy Shaw worked with Lois Weaver to create Ruff, an autobiographical monologue which explores the experience of Peggy Shaw’s life as a performer following a stroke.
Ruff is delivered with arresting honesty in Shaw’s trademark deadpan comic style, but perhaps most notably, the memory lapses that punctuate life following a stroke are incorporated into the performance too. In embracing this liveness and working with ‘the source text of her own life experience’, every performance of Ruff is distinct . In an interview about the performance making process Shaw says:
Working with what we have, isn’t an unusual thing. But this was different because I sort of, appear ok. But I’m not quite ok. But I’m good at performing realness.
In Ruff, Shaw and Weaver use the lived experience of having a stroke and its long-term effects as part of the performance aesthetic. In exploring the after-effects of a stroke in performance, Shaw exposes her limitations, her ongoing memory lapses and her continual journey to recover herself and her place within the performance. The performance space becomes a reflection of her own inner state of being and in bringing her personal narrative into the shared public realm of performance, she opens a discourse with her audience, as Benjamin Gillespie describes:
The audience at Dixon Place in New York City could feel an unnerving sense of vulnerability and urgency within Shaw’s visceral presence as she measured her curtailed capacities for memory as performance. Indeed, circumscribed within the very structure of the piece was Shaw’s determination to recover and document a past existing within, but simultaneously fractured by her memory.
Shaw’s bodily limitations and potential for ‘failure’ are incorporated into the performance by a technological framework of three monitors, which Shaw introduces to her audience as part of her supporting cast. Weaver sits within the audience to provide support to Shaw throughout the performance as and when she needs it; the audience are also asked to hand items to Shaw, as and when she needs them, which constructs an environment of care and support and illustrates the unique and symbiotic relationship between performer and spectator. The symptoms of Shaw’s stroke are not masked or hidden but are instead embraced as part of Shaw’s persona: as such, the usually private ageing self is publicly exposed to the audience through a shared live experience. The fragmented and episodic delivery always appears on the verge of failure, but the use of technological aids and the incorporated audience interaction supports Shaw’s delivery and serves to expose the liveness and the uniqueness of each performance:
Failure works. Which is to say that although ostensibly it signals the breakdown of an aspiration or an agreed demand, breakdown indexes an alternative route or way of doing or making. … Whilst an intended outcome imagines only one result, the ways in which it might not achieve that outcome are indeterminate.
Throughout the performance, the aftermath of the stroke is evident in the structure of the piece and Shaw’s method of delivery. Shaw has not just lost the capacity to recall events and experiences from the past, but she also has to overcome her inability to ‘memorize lines’, in turn forcing ‘her style to be inherently rough, improvised, and broken’ . By incorporating her memory impairment as an integral part of her performance, Shaw is reclaiming her visibility and identity as an older female performer, as well as enabling herself to sustain her career as a performance artist. In an interview for the Stroke Association, Weaver points out that Shaw’s memory problems following the stroke were used as an ‘advantage’ in performance rather than being viewed as a ‘deficit’, as propagated by the decline narrative . The trajectory of memory is reconstructive and as such, ‘depends upon nerve pathways that fire anew each time we recall the original event’:
Memories are affected by later events, they get mixed up with other memories, they contain gaps which the mind rushes to fill up, they are dependent upon the language in which they are recalled. To remember the past is, whether we like it or not, to perform a creative act in the present.
Furthermore, Shaw’s fragmented performance which moves between recollection of the past and the present creative act, mirrors the ‘vibrant relay between experience and thought’, that the spectator undertakes as they ‘imaginatively re-make’ and find meaning in the performance .
Woodward argues that autobiographical performance ‘will serve us better’ than dramatic performance and fiction in that it manages to ‘draw us closer to what is real’ by bringing ‘what is generally understood as private into the public domain’. Split Britches’ Ruff manages to ’embrace a broad spectrum of feeling’ and activism which stretches beyond that of sympathy . Encouraging both admiration and reflection, Ruff illuminates the ‘lived’ experience of life following a stroke.
This chapter has considered the autobiographical performance practices of three women artists. While Aggiss, Weaver and Shaw proceed from a place of ‘disadvantage’ in respect of their age, as I have argued, in their position as white women of relative privilege they may be less severely affected by decline discourse than some other social groups.
In my work with older people as a communication practitioner for Greater Manchester Mental Health Foundation Trust, it was the often older men of African-Caribbean heritage who so often appeared as the marginalised group. With a ‘one size fits all’ approach to therapies and social activities, many older males from these marginalised ethnic groups resist engagement and fall into a pattern of isolation and loneliness. Furthermore, although males have traditionally resisted the clutch of the master narrative of decline, they now appear to be ‘falling victim to its pervasive grasp’ in their middle-age :
Men are being bombarded with messages that they too need help against ageing. In response men are buying hair dye and remedies to grow or replace hair. They are the fastest growing market for plastic surgeries, and they are increasingly self-conscious about being overweight.
If we are to challenge the master narrative of decline, the autobiographical expression and stories of other aged social groups in society will prove useful to examine too. Gullette asserts that there is a ‘way out’ of the despondency of the narrative of decline if ‘one recognises that decline is an ideology, learns more about its techniques, and invents resistances’ . The social construction of ageing concerns all of us, albeit depending on our gender, race or cultural position in society. The autobiographical performances of Aggiss, Weaver and Shaw demonstrate that the visibility of the older body on our artistic stages, is one of the ways that we can rupture and generate resistance to the narrative of decline.
‘Act Your Age’: New Writing
Reflecting on Valerie Barnes Lipscomb’s proposal of ‘theatre as a fertile ground’ for the exploration of ‘various theoretical angles in age studies’ and considering Anna Harpin’s observation of the way that contemporary theatre-makers are ‘attempting to reshape the politics of aging in performance’ ; this chapter will examine performance, and more specifically new writing, as a potential site of discovery and creativity in uncovering new ways to approach and re-script ageing and old age.
In The Long Life, a study of old age in Western philosophy and literature, Helen Small states that ‘neither philosophy nor literature is especially rich in positive responses to age’ and that ‘representations of old age in fiction, drama, and poetry have been symptomatic of a culture (in Kathleen Woodward’s phrase) “profoundly ambivalent, and primarily negative, about old age”‘ . We have long seen older people populate the theatrical stage where ageing has functioned as a ‘metaphor, or, trope, as opposed to being itself a legitimate and coherent object of study and exploration’ . However, in more recent years there has been a significant shift in the concern to stage aspects of the lived experiences of older people. The focus of theatre on ageing may be due to some theatre-makers, those of the post-war baby-boom generation, moving into later midlife and old age . It is also apparent that ageing is becoming a topic of widespread interest, particularly following the economic crisis of 2008 and the questions arising from an ageing population . Most importantly, the performance of new writing is beginning to look at old age and ageing as being a legitimate exploration in its own right and a valid artistic response to the shifting cultural context and needs of our ageing society.
The fictional narrative inherent in a theatrical performance offers a particularly stimulating platform for opening discussions about long-standing assumptions about age. Functioning as a sign-system, theatre draws on and employs the codes and signifiers that we encounter in our everyday lives. Consequently, if the master narrative of decline, as suggested by Gullette, is pervasive in the politics of our lives, then we can expect it to penetrate the realm of performance and the theatrical stage. More preferentially, if theatre is inextricably linked to cultural narratives surrounding old age and ageing, it also possesses the implicit potentiality to question and examine them. The liveness of performance places those existing narratives of decline, described by Harpin as ‘static and seemingly self-evident notions of old age’, into a state of fluidity and flux . Theatre offers a platform which works ‘towards immediacy and interactivity’ and brings ‘a reflective space through which to interrogate these cultural dynamics’ surrounding old age and ageing . As such, in addition to subscribing to normative age ideologies, performance also has the inherent capability to critique and resist ‘the bleakness of the master narrative of decline’ .
In considering Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s master narrative of decline, issues surrounding the performance of age and ageing become highly apparent on the theatrical stage. In theatrical performance the body offers itself as the primary form of expression, the actor both has a body and performs their body and ‘our default bodies’ are ‘always at work whether we are conscious of them or not’ in producing ‘diverse age effects’ . Actors must often portray a different age to their chronological age in their interpretation of their performative persona. Further reinforcing this notion, the nature of dramatic practice often requires actors to project different ages throughout the performance not just from one act to the next, but from one moment to the next. In summarising the findings from the European Network in Aging Studies conference in 2011, Aagje Swinnen and Cynthia Port select the performativity of age as an urgent and significant approach in the multi- and interdisciplinary understanding of age studies:
The notion of performativity defines age not only as a state of being but through acts of doing. Theories of performativity claim that age identities are formed and perpetuated through the repetition of behavioural scripts connected to chronological ages and life stages. Since a repetition can never be identical to its original script, there is always the possibility of subversion and change. The concept of performativity has particular significance in performance studies, as actors both enact age upon the stage and negotiate behavioural norms associated with their own chronological ages. But it also offers an illuminating conceptual approach to understanding the actions and behaviours of individuals and groups across the life span.
Both Swinnen and Port observe the complex and changeable exchange between the chronological age of the performer and the age of the fictional character that they are playing and the ‘behavioural norms’ that manifest from this interplay. Furthermore, Lipscomb compounds this notion by suggesting that theatre is a ‘research site’, which engages with ‘critical, narrative and performative turns in age studies’ . Taking what Lipscomb describes as, ‘the performative on stage’, ‘the narrative in the script’ and ‘the chronological/ biological age in the multiple realities of performance’ , this article will aim to analyse the degree to which theatre can disrupt age narratives alongside the extent to which it propagates Gullette’s master narrative of decline. To interrogate the intricate way that age and ageing is handled in performance, I will make specific reference to Lovesong by Abi Morgan (2011) and Autobiographer by Melanie Wilson (2011).
Lovesong (2011) by Abi Morgan
Abi Morgan, playwright and screenwriter, has tackled the subject of age and ageing frequently throughout her artistic work: writer of the screenplay for The Iron Lady (2011) which was described as ‘a studied imagining of old age’ by Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian ; her subsequent play entitled 27, plots the advances of a revolutionary scientific study into ageing and dementia against faith and a religious belief system. In an interview with Alex Sierz on love and death in Lovesong, Abi Morgan expressed:
I wanted to write a play where a sixteen-year-old would say, “I want to live my life to the full because one day I will be old”, but which also recognised older people as living sexual beings because I’m going in that direction and I don’t want to be put in that other invisible place.
In discussing ‘today’s aged population’ and the apparent rejection of ‘the traditional construction of older age’, Lipscomb concurs that ‘a more inclusive method of analysing age, focusing on the performance of all ages rather that the segregation of older age, can combat widespread ageism’ and Abi Morgan’s artistic focus on issues surrounding older people and ageing certainly reinforces this idea.
Lovesong tells the story of Margaret/ Maggie and William/ Billy’s forty-year marriage from two different points in time. Using four actors to play two characters: the older couple, Maggie (Sian Phillips) and Billy (Sam Cox) are nearing the end of their lives together, with Maggie’s health undergoing deterioration, and their younger selves, Margaret (Leanne Rowe) and William (Edward Bennett), have just moved to America and are in the beginnings of their relationship together. The use of physical theatre in the production enables the two couples to inhabit the stage simultaneously and intertwine their story fluidly from two different points in time; Billy passes in front of William’s path and Maggie picks up a bowl that Margaret has just put down. While Billy and Maggie are tracked over a few days, Margaret and William’s life as a newly-wed couple with financial struggles, childlessness, career concerns and threats of betrayal is documented over a period of around ten to fifteen years. In moving around the performance space, the couples are viewed as connected to each other across time, although they do not interact with each other in any ‘real’ sense. In offering a multi-temporal experience of ageing, Lovesong offers ‘a fertile ground’ in the critical assessment of age narratives, as critic and audience member Catherine Love observes:
By far the most intriguing theme to thread through Billy and Maggie’s story is that of time and its linearity or otherwise. The intersection of past and present, while primarily redolent of the potency of memory, asks inherent questions about our conception of time, questions that arise again and again when Billy introduces different theories of time. Are our lives really lived along a straight line, or is time far more complex than we could imagine?
Lovesong both exposes and disturbs notions of linearity and chronological time to create the deep layering of life experience associated with old age and lived experience. In using metatheatrical techniques to perform the multi-temporal experience of ageing, Lovesong places ‘time’ as ‘the object of direct experience’ as a theme and as a process, turning ‘time as such into an object of the aesthetic experience’ . Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham highlights T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock and the song Starlings by Elbow as inspiration for Lovesong . Both T.S Eliot’s poem and Elbow’s song serve to link the past and present giving an ‘indication of history’ and ‘promise for the future’ . Starlings offered a ‘near contemporary equivalent of Prucock, present echoing past’ , inciting a visual theme symbolising continuity, memory and legacy. A line in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock prompted the peach tree as a central motif to the couple’s relationship . The peach tree becomes an emblem of the couple’s marriage – representative of the nurture and maintenance of their relationship – providing a performative focus for future expectations and past experiences, and closeness and distance between both sets of couples. When Margaret and William first move into the house, they refer to the peach tree and William eagerly and affectionately eats a peach from Margaret’s hand. Later in the play, we witness distance and rupture between Margaret and William when he falters in replicating this expressive and sensual act once more. However, (older) Billy steps forward to eat the peach from (younger) Margaret’s hand and the two different time frames intertwine simply and seamlessly in a state of performative repair. This poignant moment in the production seeks to give a compassionate view of the sexual longing of an older man while also reinforcing the association of old age with regret, a tethering to the past and a reluctance to face any future potentiality. This moment heightens the shift in the age narratives of the older couple, Maggie and Billy and the younger version of themselves, Margaret and William. Whereas the youthful dynamic of Margaret and William focuses on acquiring and filling their first home, accomplishing career aspirations and navigating paths of sexual infidelity and childlessness, the aperture of later life is narrowed for Maggie and Billy; their main concerns being domestic tasks, decluttering and health-related issues. In juxtaposing the differences and gaps between the younger and older couple’s stories, Gullette’s cultural age progress/ decline dichotomy is restated and reproduced on the theatrical stage. Referencing this notion in his review for A Younger Theatre: Theatre through the Eyes of the Younger Generations, young critic Jake Orr comments:
‘Growing old and dying are two things that haunt us all. I fear that as I get older, the person I once was will begin to disappear. I worry about the fragments of my life that I will leave scattered behind me – will they be worth it? I worry that I won’t be remembered and that growing old will only bring me closer to my death. This, in many ways, is a direct reaction to Love Song, Frantic Assembly’s latest production … I feel sure that many members of the audience had the same experiences, because Abi Morgan’s play so naturally captures universal fears’ .
Abi Morgan’s play manages to capture these ‘universal fears’ that many people hold in relation to age and ageing and in doing so bolsters the narrative of decline, suggesting that old age is a life stage that should be feared rather than be progressed towards.
In turning towards the physical aesthetic, Lovesong is a performative work which celebrates the differences in age of its cast. Morgan’s text is punctuated by stylised physical theatre sequences choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett which serve to dislodge any tendency to default the production to a naturalistic style of delivery. The physical interactions between the young and old bodies create a balletic corporeal language which communicates between and beyond Morgan’s dialogue. The younger actors, Rowe and Bennett are striking in performing the more physically demanding routines. However, the most visceral performance sequences are demonstrated by the older performers. In an interview with Laura Chamberlain with BBC Radio Wales Sian Phillips describes working with Frantic Assembly on Lovesong:
It’s not something I ever thought I’d get a chance to do because, obviously, Frantic Assembly is physical theatre. Normally, ordinarily, they work with young people. So at my age I never thought I would be in a physical theatre company.
Morgan’s textual narrative presents Maggie as an older woman, who although not bedridden is confined to her home, in ‘poor health’ which strengthens and ‘reasserts the narrative of decline’ equating old age with ‘disease, deterioration, and incapacity’ . The most significant element of Sian Phillips’ performance is generated through the tensions between Maggie’s physical and mental ill health, in Morgan’s text, and the Frantic Assembly physical theatre sequences, delivered with agility and grace by Sian Phillips. As such, Sian Phillips’ ‘default body’, as described by Gullette, is at work here and these multiple realities of performance ‘produce diverse age effects’ :
When the curtain goes up, all are potentially subjects worthy of our gaze, potentially suspenseful, lives in being. However you define presence, they’ve got it. There is our ideal life world. Being able to forget the body, which some think is a good idea for older people, would not seem ideal if our bodies at all ages could be present in such compelling ways. And while I’m in the theatre, I do feel my own body-mind is thrillingly present and significant, like that of the actors I identify with. The empathy I feel with their movements and words makes the experience of going to a play psychosomatically intense.
A striking multiple reality is created in Lovesong. In the constructed performance space, Maggie is reaching the end of her life and she is stoic though frail. In contrast to this Sian Phillips’ performs her ‘real’ older body as Maggie – she is lifted and carried and delivers kicks with ease – demonstrating strength, flexibility and physical control. Furthering this notion, Gullette comments that ‘the stagecraft of bodies’ in performance is a valid technique in resisting ‘the bodiless overemphasis on the plasticity of bodies’ and ‘the neglect of age as a construct’ particularly where ‘older bodies are concerned (especially female, racialised, or disabled), from knee-jerk devaluation and the lure of the posthuman’ Of course, Frantic Assembly’s physical choreography does not just serve to express the physical prowess or subvert the expected capabilities of the older body. The stylised movement also allows the characters from different moments in time to connect. Nearing the end of the performance there is a poignant physical sequence where all four performers – young and old – become interlaced across time as one fluid assemblage:
(MAGGIE’S hand reaches up, catching BILLY’S hand, lying restless in bed. BILLY turns as MAGGIE sinks back into the bed, to be replaced by MARGARET now sitting up.)
(MARGARET and BILLY caught in an embrace in the bed, the twist and turn of the sheets until at once BILLY is now WILLIAM, lost in lovemaking with MARGARET and then with another twist MARGARET is now MAGGIE and then WILLIAM and then BILLY until…)
The stage directions are suggestive of the dream-like exchange that happens between the two couples, and the tension created between past and present, and memory and passion. During these sequences the past and present selves of Margaret/ Maggie and William/ Billy are equally balanced with the audience poised somewhere between. Frantic Assembly describe wanting to ‘make a show about an age group older and an age group younger’ than themselves to explore the ‘fascinating gap between those two generations’ . Neither couple carries more weight than the other, both retain their individualities without either seeming more ‘real’ than the other. In performing multiple versions of the ageing self simultaneously on stage, the audience are invited to experience narratives around love and ageing from two different points which serves to heighten the awareness of the incongruities and similarities between youth and age.
Autobiographer (2011) by Melanie Wilson
Sound artist, writer and performer Melanie Wilson has explored notions of displaced identity, particularly loss of individual agency, throughout her portfolio of work. Her first solo piece Simple Girl examined migrant identity, loss of individual agency and displacement. Wilson probes notions of identity through a grounded and formal examination of the things which constitute selfhood and then explores these ideas through the performative interactions with the audience. Created as a performative study into how dementia shapes identity and dislocates an individual’s perception of time and memory, Autobiographer was sculpted following six months of intensive research. Under the supervision of Dr Sube Banerjee, Wilson spent time listening and observing the Mental Health in Older Adults and Dementia Team in Croydon, the Alzheimer’s Society and The Trebus Project .
Autobiographer is a performance poem which seeks to examine and decipher the unravelling mind of Flora, an older lady with a diagnosis of dementia. Flora is the central and only character in the piece and she is voiced by four actors (who represent her at different chronological ages throughout her life), a young girl and an evocative soundtrack.
Autobiographer provides an interesting performance study as it attempts to portray dementia ‘from the inside’ of its characters mind, instead of through the eyes of those who must deal with the loss of someone they once knew . In her 2018 journal: Talking back, talking out, talking otherwise, Janet Louise Gibson argues that ‘PLWD (people living with dementia) are not generally construed as (agentic) subjects in most Western cultures’:
From the moment of diagnosis, many PLWD are consigned to the realm of biosocial death, theorised as occurring when a person’s capacity to partake in society diminishes to the point of not being considered a person. As non-persons (and non-citizens with many previously understood ‘rights’, like driving a car, removed), They rarely appear on public theatre stages, underscoring a strong connection between access, political distributions of visibility, and aesthetic practices.
In Wilson’s Autobiographer the character of Flora, her experiences, her memories and the struggles following the onset of dementia become the aesthetic of the performance and as such, are indicated as being an integral and valuable part of life, worthy of exploration and expression. In an interview with What’s On Stage, Wilson describes that ‘dementia is often spoken about in public arenas in very heightened and often hysterical terms. I was keen to create a performance that illuminated the experience of dementia without fictionalizing it’ . In writing about age and live performance, Lipscomb contends that ‘the live on stage moment that remembers the past’ is integral in portraying ‘a fullness of self, rather than a diminished self that foregrounds aging as decline’ and Wilson’s performance certainly uses the immediacy of live performance to illustrate the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people currently living with dementia in the UK.
The four performers, of different ages, that portray Flora in Autobiographer are all dressed in the same navy-blue shift dress. Flora’s character is presented in her teenage years, thirties, fifties, seventies and as a young child by performers of approximately the same chronological age as the era in Flora’s life they depict. In contrast to Abi Morgan’s Lovesong, which portrayed the two characters, Maggie/ Margaret and Billy/ William over two specific periods in their life together, Autobiographer aims to present the audience with Flora’s whole life by using multiple versions of the self concurrently as one visual motif. Furthermore, Morgan sets up a youth/ old age binary in Lovesong which bypasses any representation of midlife whereas Autobiographer sees a collective of performers, of all ages, representing Flora’s whole persona with a focus on the lived experience and a progressive ageing narrative. In discussing ‘the performance of all ages’, Lipscomb describes taking a ‘big-tent approach’ in the field of age-studies, ‘focusing on age as a category of identity rather than examining only the aged as one half of a binary opposition between youth and old age’ . Indeed, Wilson incorporates this idea into the structure of Autobiographer when the lines spoken by the performers overlap, fragment, repeat or are picked up by another Flora in the ensemble. There is a sense that each of the Flora’s are equal, despite their different ages, and all offer a valid insight and presence into the overall construction of Flora’s identity, needs and beliefs.
Wilson uses multiplicity of the self as a metatheatrical concept to convey that Flora’s sense of identity is constructed from stories, memories and encounters from her past. Most intelligently, Wilson interweaves the sense of ‘agelessness’, a common experience among older people who report to feel ‘no different from when they were young, that they remain unchanged’ :
FLORA1: …Because sometimes you’ll ask.
FLORA 2: And I really think you’ll mean it.
You’ll say ‘How are you feeling?’
And I’ll think … I am a 76-year-old woman, but inside I feel like
I’m 33. Just to let you know. Before you forget.
Leader in age studies, Kathleen Woodward adapts Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, which focuses on the moment a child first recognises themselves in a mirror and develops an awareness of selfhood, to reflect the experience of ageing. Woodward’s mirror stage of old age can be interpreted as ‘more problematic’, than Lacan’s mirror stage, in that it is ‘inherently triangular, involving the gaze of others as well as two images of oneself. ‘ In Autobiographer, Wilson brings this phenomenon into the realm of performance by creating a tension between chronological age, biological age and performative age, especially as this piece of dialogue is performed by Flora 1 ( a girl in her late teenage years) and Flora 2 (a woman in her mid-thirties). In allowing Flora 2 to state ‘I am a 76-year-old woman’ to the audience, Wilson is holding up the mirror of old age to present one valid representation of dementia from an ‘inside’ perspective.
Gullette claims that ‘any self we can identify has a potential storyline, potentially rich in detail and value, deeply imbricated in time, and made possible by ageing’. Following her extensive research period with the mental health team in Croyden, Wilson writes in beautifully splintered poetic text and adopts a repetitive style of delivery which seeks to mirror the speech patterns and communication impairment that may be present in people with dementia:
FLORA 1: I have this story.
I was told this story
Of a boy … a small boy.
And a yearning so profound it entered his heart like a clanging bell …
… making it struggle and resist the walls of his chest.
FLORA 3: A small boy … shaped his heart into a bird
With the sound of a bell
His heart into a bird of green
FLORA 1: brilliant green
FLORA 3: with eyes, shining
The fragmented dialogue of unexpected comparisons and etymological hops in Autobiographer capture the complex struggle of Flora’s internal world, with a focus on memory loss, and invite the audience to be active in deciphering her story. The pauses in thought, periods of discontinuity and the poetic restoration of memory are reflective of Flora’s desire to express her thoughts and her inability to do so. Gullette comments that ‘memory is only one aspect of mind – not necessarily the most important aspect of selfhood’ and that it is preferable to emphasize other values such as ‘intelligence, logic, creativity, warmth, humour, empathy, imagination and moral judgement’ which ‘survive for a long time in people living along the whole spectrum of impairments’ . However, in placing an emphasis on Flora’s memory, Wilson has restated and reperformed the cultural norms that present older people in terms of forgetfulness and memory loss.
In her review of Autobiographer, Lyn Gardner contends that the audience ‘simply never get to know Flora well enough to care about what has been lost, and the lack of tonal variety becomes wearisome. The piece is so busy being poetic that it sells Flora and her fragmented story short’ . Indeed, by depicting the dominant narrative as a dreamlike and lyrical portrayal of dementia, Wilson’s Autobiographer risks being interpreted as being overly nostalgic and in doing so equates old age with senile memory loss and mental decline.
Remembering Lipscomb’s claim that theatre is ‘a fertile ground’ for the exploration of age and ageing, this chapter has demonstrated the importance of contemporary performance, particularly new writing, in opening a discourse around critical gerontology. The accessibility of theatre and performance and audience spectatorship facilitates raising awareness of ageism among diverse types of people; academics, health workers and older people themselves can witness, participate and probe normative age narratives.
In analysing new writing, it may be perceived that the current political interest in our ageing society has signalled an increase in parts for older performers on stage, but further quantitative research would be needed in order to affirm this. Increasing the number of older performers on stage will not disrupt and rewrite the existing scripts around age and ageing, but it will go some way in offering a balanced and well-rounded view of ageing in tackling cultural issues that are relevant to all in the challenges associated with an ageing society.
Recollecting and Recycling: Cross-Age Casting
In view of Anne Basting’s proposal to see the body ‘in temporal depth’ and view the process of ageing as performative, this chapter will examine the age effects that are generated when cross-age casting is adopted in a theatrical production. Reflecting Basting’s claim that performance can ‘imagine and embody past and potential changes across time’ as well as playing with those present and past imaginings ; this piece of writing will take two contrasting contemporary adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which have been reimagined for an older cast.
When cross-age casting is adopted as a theatrical technique, age and ageing becomes a performance in its own right – bound by the ‘biological clock onstage, and by the linear, chronological structure’ of the performance . This article will look closely at the age effects that are produced when a prominent classical text, traditionally presented by a young cast, is performed by older people. The two productions that I will focus on in this piece of writing have taken the same original text, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but have reworked it differently. With a focus on Ben Power’s A Tender Thing (2009 and also revived by the RSC in 2012) and Sean O’Connor and Tom Morris’ Juliet and Her Romeo (2010) , I will explore the performative restructure of each text for an older cast, the ‘knowingness’ of the older actors in moving within roles devised for a younger cast and the new meanings that are generated from such incongruities and tensions. With the work of Margaret Morganroth Gullette in mind, I will examine the potential of cross-age performance in offering counter narratives to the master narrative of decline.
In her introduction to Hans T Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre, Karen Jurs-Munby describes ‘postdramatic’ contemporary performance as being ‘an analysis and anamnesis’ of drama . In re-shaping Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – a classical story of young love – with a cast of older actors, the transposition of the story from youth to age and the disparity that this generates become the central focus of the work. While the experienced older actors are cast in the adapted fictional roles with a playing age very close to their own chronological age, they are also performing the lines and speeches which were originally written for young performers, playing young characters. Furthermore, the audience may also have a preconception of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and the way that they perceive such an iconic text should be performed. Writing on theatre and cultural memory, Marvin Carlson argues that:
Theatre, as a simulacrum of the cultural and historical process itself … is the repository of cultural meaning, but, like the memory of each individual, it is also subject to continual adjustment and modification as the memory is recalled in new circumstances and contexts. The present experience is always ghosted by previous experiences and associations while these ghosts are simultaneously shifted and modified by the process of recycling and recollecting.
Drawing connections with Basting’s model of performance which considers the body in terms of its temporality, Carlson proposes that each theatrical performance in the present is ‘ghosted’ by the audience’s past performative experiences and recollections. This notion can be applied to the cross-age adaptations of Romeo and Juliet in two diverse ways. Firstly, in the way that the audience receive the cross-age adaptations, which are influenced by their exposure to Shakespeare’s original text, whether in performance or in the classroom. Furthermore, in the way that the audience read the performance in terms of age and the stagecraft of the older body, in playing roles which are normally assigned to youthful actors. The ‘text of the actor’s body’ is interpreted by the audience ‘in relation to our symbolic age codes’ and the methods that the actor employs ‘to play with the codes’ ; in addition, the audience has to navigate the age codes – associated with youth – which are so deeply ‘ghosted’ within the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Consequently, it is impossible for an audience to see a production which has been cast against the expected age range or ‘against the text (a narrative text, a body text), without wondering what such casting means’ .
In considering Brecht’s Verfremdung, the familiar text of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (with a youthful cast) appears strange (with an aged cast) which serves to encourage the spectator to evaluate the performative space lying between the performer and the character. This performative space facilitates questions around cultural age binaries and aids the spectator to produce a diverse and individual response to age and the aged body. As such, cross-age performance, where an older cast take on roles which are normally assigned to younger performers, may have the ability to rupture normative cultural age narratives.
Romeo and Juliet: Reframed and Remixed
Juliet and Her Romeo adapted by Sean O’Connor and Tom Morris is subtitled on the published text as A geriatric Romeo and Juliet. Aside from the action shifting from the streets of fair Verona and into the corridors and bedrooms of a British nursing home, Shakespeare’s main narrative structure and language is left overall intact. In contrast, Ben Power’s A Tender Thing offers a far more radical reworking of Romeo and Juliet. With a complete reordering and reallocation of the poetic text, Ben Power describes it as a ‘remix of Shakespeare’s original play’ . Retaining just the two central characters of Romeo and Juliet, Power reimagines the story as an intimate portrait of an aged ‘married couple who discover that their lifetime together is drawing to a close’ and the realisation ‘that they cannot contemplate being apart’ . A Tender Thing examines an older couples’ journey towards euthanasia. Although both adaptations place age and ageing as a central theme, Juliet and Her Romeo attempts to use the classic love story to develop class politics and offer a ‘contemporary satire on the dismantling of the health service’ .
In Tom Morris and Sean O’Connor’s adaptation, the Verona Nursing Home – ‘a decaying Victorian building with unsympathetic modern additions’ becomes the setting for the action . The historic feud between the Capulets and the Montagues is represented by splitting the Verona Nursing Home into two separate wards; the Capulet Wing housing the ‘private clients who can afford it’ and the Montague ward homing those ‘residents on benefits’ . A prologue, delivered directly to the audience by Juliet’s nurse, has been added to frame Shakespeare’s original text. The prologue serves to transport the audience to an unspecified point in a future Britain ‘torn apart by a horrific civil war’ with the Montagues on the ‘losing republican side’ and the Capulets on the ‘victorious monarchist side’ . In his review, Laurence Publicover describes the prologue seeming ‘for a moment more like a party-political broadcast than a play’ . However, the use of the prologue gives the audience a foothold into the context of the performance and allows the production to raise issues surrounding Britain’s ageing population and concerns around our health and social care provision.
Offering a forceful take on a contemporary social and political situation, Juliet and Her Romeo foregrounds the nursing home as an institutional setting and offers a commentary on the crisis our NHS currently faces, which has been partly attributed to the growing demands of an older population. Discussing the production, Maddy Costa of The Guardian writes:
In a youth-obsessed culture, the thought of people falling in love as they inch towards death is practically taboo … from the pension shortfall to the rise of dementia, Britain’s ageing population is commonly presented as one big homogenous crisis, in which “the elderly” are barely seen as individuals, let alone contributors to society.
In describing the myths linked to old age and the associated decline narrative, Anne Basting concurs that to ‘become old’ has been ‘largely regarded in terms of loss’; the loss of beauty, the loss of power: financial and physical, the loss of independence, and the loss of flexibility and potential for growth. Juliet and Her Romeo aims to counter the idea of equating older age with deficit and desolation by placing a focus on ‘the emotional situation of the characters’ . Moving away from the theme of young love in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Morris argues that the play is about ‘people falling in love. You actually see that moment dramatized. And you can apply that to any age’ . However, the mere re-framing of such a canonical text, written about young love, to fit the agenda of a relationship between two older lovers, could be viewed as problematic. Shoehorning a love story about two older people into an existing text about two young lovers may serve to devalue old age further, ‘recreating it as an imitation of young adulthood’ rather than recognising age and ageing as a separate, valuable and progressive stage of life. Indeed, some critics found that Act One’s Queen Mab speech by Mercutio (Dudley Sutton) brought ‘slight disappointment’ as ‘both Dudley Sutton and his Mercutio seemed conscious of being in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet’ instead of in O’Connor and Morris’ contemporary reimagining for an older cast . The British Theatre Guide’s Pete Wood adds:
There are moments when the staging throws up undreamt of comedy. As when Romeo explains to Juliet how he scaled the wall to reach her. Or, shortly after, when Juliet calls him back only to admit she has forgotten why. But these are isolated felicities in an evening which grows increasingly ridiculous and provokes mounting exasperation at the sheer daftness … Dudley Sutton as Mercutio murders the Queen Mab speech, robbing it of wit and any energy whatsoever in a somnambulistic drone that seems to last for eternity.
In the search to create a logic around the dystopian nursing-home setting and Shakespeare’s original text, Juliet and her Romeo may have missed capturing some of the ‘solutions’ that can be gained through the negotiation of the ‘dynamics and dependencies of past/present, old words/ worlds and new’ through the liveness of a performative adaptation . Paul Taylor of The Independent praises Sian Phillips’ Juliet, along with most reviewers, but then asserts that the play should be performed ‘straight but with elderly actors in the lead parts’ arguing that this would ‘raise all the issues’ which have been broached laboriously ‘with a tacit eloquence’ . Referring to the deadly conflict between the private Capulet wing and the NHS Montague ward, the wealthy Paris who ‘blunders around the place, wearing a medal and holding a bunch of flowers’ and a series of altercations involving zimmer frames and walking sticks, Taylor is unconvinced . Theatre, as a sign system which draws on the signifiers of everyday life, is an artistic form which has always used stock characters and stereotypes. In using the performative stereotype of an older person with a walking aid, Gullette’s master narrative of decline is articulated and maintained. In considering the postdramatic, Lehmann argues that ‘it is not the direct political content or thematics’ which makes theatre political . Indeed, the power and provocation of the live event lies in its latent ability to transform and expand cultural perceptions surrounding old age and ageing and the presentation of props, such as walking sticks and zimmer frames, that are viewed as motifs of old age, only serve to proliferate normative decline ideologies. In Juliet and Her Romeo, the central narratives of ageing and love are generated primarily through the audience’s familiarity with Shakespeare’s original text and the presentation of the older body on stage. The use of zimmer frames and walking sticks in the performance is suggestive of senile instability and lack of progression. Leaning on Judith Butler’s theories, by using these props as signifiers of old age, the bodies of the performers appear as ‘a passive medium on which cultural meanings are inscribed’ . By using older actors to perform a text which is normally assigned to a younger cast, as witnessed in cross-age performance, leaves the audience with the privilege of rearranging and deciphering the bodies and textual material themselves as a way of advancing a narrative of progression rather than propagating a tone of decline.
As an interesting point of comparison, Ben Power’s A Tender Thing reduces the cast down to the two central characters of Romeo and Juliet and, in a complete reordering and fragmentation of Shakespeare’s original text, presents the lovers in the later stages of their life together. Power’s A Tender Thing imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare’s ‘star-cross’d’ lovers had stayed together beyond their youth and lived to old age. Power’s approach to the text differs to that of Morris and O’Connor in that he weaves a brand-new play from the textual and thematic threads of the original script. Romeo and Juliet speak the dialogue from the other characters to stretch and enrich their story over the additional decades that they have shared together. Adopting the sentiment originally spoken by the Nurse in the classic play, Juliet references their childlessness and the death of their only daughter:
JULIET: She was the prettiest babe that e’er was seen
An she had lived for us to see her wed
I’d have my wish.
The effect of ‘remixing’ Shakespeare’s original script serves to demonstrate that the themes of love, loss and nurture are universal and applicable to any age group. Exploring this notion further, Richard Schechner asserts that ‘a role does not equal a person’ but is a ‘summation of the role’s own historical eruption, placement and continued development’ . In taking Shakespeare’s original language and redistributing its meaning, Power illustrates the ‘transformative quality of performance’ and the way in which ‘the very act of acting’ can ‘shift popularly held notions that ageing is a narrative of rigidity and decline’ . This performative idea can be compared to the way that our cultural identities are constructed – just as Shakespeare’s original script provides the creative impetus for A Tender Thing – remoulded and crafted into a new text, generating new meaning and new ways to view the world; so are our cultural and aged identities formed – shifting constantly, erupting with history, alongside our place in the world and our life experiences.
Older bodies: Performing the ‘knowingness’ of the text
In reimagining Shakespeare’s original text, both A Tender Thing and Juliet and Her Romeo are deliberate in communicating a sense of ‘knowingness’ and consciousness through their adaptations of Romeo and Juliet with an aged cast. In Juliet and Her Romeo, the ‘knowingness’ of the older actors as they tease themselves into the half-remembered roles of the young lovers, offers up a new and fertile ground of possibility and interpretation for the performers and their audience. In utilising cross-age casting, the allocation of the performer’s roles may be viewed as both age-appropriate and age-inappropriate . Firstly, Sian Phillips (Juliet), Michael Byrne (Romeo) and Dudley Sutton (Mercutio) were all playing fictional characters of around their own chronological age and as a result, could perform their ‘default’ bodies without the need to ‘act old’ . Secondly, in transposing the narrative from youth to aged, the lines which were originally spoken by young actors, playing young roles, were loaded with new meaning and fresh vitality when spoken by older performers. In examining Sian Phillips in the role of Juliet, Laurence Publicover writes: ‘This was a woman willing herself into love, finding the girlishness of Juliet (and her impetuous, choppy speeches) somewhere within her, and yet still conscious of the mature body that shelled her’ . In Sian Phillips’ portrayal of Juliet, tensions are created between her aged bodily text and Shakespeare’s authorship, as Roland Barthes observes in Image, Music, Text: ‘We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’ . The text of Phillips’ aged body juxtaposed with Shakespeare’s poetic language, which is normally associated with young love, encourages interaction and interpretation from the spectator. Observing the performance binaries that are at work in cross-age performance, Marvin Carlson claims that:
The retelling of stories already told, the re-enactments of events already enacted, the reexperience of emotions already experienced, these are and have always been central concerns of the theatre in all times and places, but closely aligned to these concerns are the particular production dynamics of theatre: the stories it chooses to tell, the bodies and other physical materials it utilises to tell them, and the places in which they are told.
By exercising cross-age casting, the audience is encouraged to engage and ‘choose’ their own story and implied personal history for the characters. An older actor is capable of bringing a different history to the character and a playful ‘knowingness’ of Shakespeare’s language. Reviewer Laurence Publicover describes Phillips’ performance of Juliet as ‘something new, and something interesting: a Juliet who was conscious of the flushness, the greenness of her own language, while also revelling both in that flushness and in her consciousness of it’ . Sian Phillips’ performance as Juliet not only enriches the language of Shakespeare but also encourages the visibility and presence of older women, in title roles, on the contemporary British stage.
In exploring cross-age casting and age as an alternative presentation of Shakespeare’s youthful Romeo and Juliet, Morris and O’Connor’s production demands that the audience are active in creating an implied personal history and background for the characters. In casting older actors, the body is performed in its full ‘temporal depth’ and as a signifier of lived experience, the past and associated memories. In imagining and embodying ‘past and potential changes’ across time, Basting suggests that ‘the study of ageing is a multidisciplinary endeavour’ and that ‘any study of old age must also be a study of youth and middle age’ . Juliet and Her Romeo succeeds in plaiting the strands of old age, through the presence of the aged bodies on stage, together with the tendrils of youthfulness, through the embodiment of Shakespeare’s original text. Although, as with my reading of Abi Morgan’s Love Song in Chapter Two of this dissertation, the aspect of ageing through the middle years is omitted from the visual continuum of ageing in Juliet and Her Romeo.
Examining the notion of ‘knowingness’ further, Ben Power’s A Tender Thing offers an additional facet in its presentation of age in performance. When A Tender Thing was first performed at Northern Stage in October 2009, Kathryn Hunter (aged 52) played Juliet and Forbes Mason (aged 46) was cast as Romeo. In playing the aged Romeo and Juliet in the closing stages of their life together, both Mason and Hunter were playing characters who were a couple of decades older than their real and chronological ages. Here, the ‘default’ bodies of Hunter and Mason, in their middle years, are poised somewhere between the later stages of life, which they perform, and the narrative of youth which ‘ghosts’ Shakespeare’s original text. Through the liveness of performance, the temporal arc of age and ageing can be presented to the audience. In the ‘real’ time and space, Hunter and Mason are middle-aged actors, but in the immediacy of performance, they enact the body in its ‘temporal depth’ embodying ‘past and potential changes across time’ :
Performance’s birth within and against theatrical form is equally rooted in an engagement with the time of enactment and its disruptive potential in relation to fictive or narrative time. For those artists whose investment in performance emerges from or is directed towards its status as social ritual, its capacity to connect distant times with the present, to slide into a liminal temporality is one of its most vital elements.
These notions of ‘liminal temporality’ are inextricably linked to the themes of age and ageing throughout A Tender Thing. Although the performative fictional narrative, which starts in the later stages of Romeo and Juliet’s life and ends with their deaths, does run chronologically, the fragmentation of Shakespeare’s original script and the montage effect that this creates for the audience, does serve to disrupt the linear trajectory. The urgent and unstoppable nature of time courses through the performance as the audience witness the deterioration of Juliet’s health. However, the words that Romeo and Juliet speak have been divorced from the character and context of Shakespeare’s original text and transposed to create a new work. In this way the linearity and life of the text has been disrupted. Giving a sense of lived experience, the two aged lovers share stories and reminisce about their life together; the language, familiar speeches and studied quotes from Shakespeare’s text resonate but simultaneously demand that the audience search for new meaning within them.
The use of time-shifts brings about further disruption to the linear movement of the narrative; the fragmented text, juxtaposing the past with the present, and the physicality of the performers bodies, allows the narrative to move swiftly through from scenes of harrowing ill health to memories of younger and healthier times. Natasha Tripney of The Stage describes the balcony scene in the 2012 RSC production as being a ‘wine-warm flashback in which McCabe and Hunter flush with feeling for one another’. In describing Kathryn Hunter’s extraordinary physicality in her portrayal of Juliet, Judi Herman of What’s On Stage writes:
In her illness she looks as if a breath would blow her away; yet for her next entrance, in a long red swirling dancing frock, flashing back to the ecstasy of early love with those familiar words ‘It is the East and Juliet is the sun’, she looks delicate and sturdy at the same time as Romeo whirls her into the dance … For this is a love that has not just survived, but grown with the years’.
In connecting the past and the happy times that Romeo and Juliet shared with their present state of frailty, ill health and old age, A Tender Thing makes some attempt to portray the lived experiences that the lovers have shared throughout their marriage.
Cross-gender and cross-racial casting have been interrogated by theorists frequently, however cross-age casting has gone largely unquestioned by theatre-makers and scholars in comparison. When an aged performer is cast in a role that is conventionally played by a younger performer, as in Juliet and Her Romeo and A Tender Thing, the aged performer both occupies the role, and is ‘ghosted’ by the audience’s familiarity of the character and their preconception of the role. The history of the text and the familiarity of the clues buried within the text, serve as a reminder that it was originally written for younger characters, played by a younger cast. These tensions relating to age and temporality, manifest through cross-age performance and these incongruities occupy the space between the aged performer on stage and the age expectations of the role. As a result, a progressive discourse is opened around ageing and the visibility and presentation of the aged body on stage.
Cross-age performance opens a dialogue around normative age narratives as they are portrayed in the theatre, in addition to encouraging the audience to consider such representations of age outside of the performance space.
With the lack of meaningful roles for older actors and the ethics associated with typical casting practices, the investigation of further cross-age adaptations, intergenerational performance and the generation of new writing by and for older people, will all aid the visibility and representation of older people in the theatre, and subsequently in our society.
In recalling Lipscomb’s assertion that theatre and performance offer a ‘fertile ground’ for the exploration of age and ageing, this dissertation has provided a valuable examination of the scope by which contemporary performance can challenge normative cultural age narratives .
Through analysing a selective snapshot of differing modes of contemporary performance, which offer a move away from the linear temporality of dramatic theatre, this dissertation has demonstrated that the performance of age is inevitably linked to the way that fictional time is handled on the stage. The representation of the self, the autobiographical address and the reframing and remixing of Shakespeare’s canonical text all serve to present imaginative and profound methods of presenting the aged body in its full ‘temporal depth’ .
In analysing the diverse ways that age and ageing has been handled on the contemporary stage, this dissertation has demonstrated a perceived increase in roles for older people which suggests that there is evidence to suggest that contemporary performance-makers are making some attempt to ‘reshape the politics of aging in performance’ . Although further and more widespread quantitative research would have to be conducted to substantiate this claim. The recent rise in performance made with and about older people could be due to the ongoing socio-political debate and intense media attention surrounding our ageing population and the challenges that our society faces in managing this. Although increased roles for older people will not subvert Gullette’s master narrative of decline, they may go some way towards increasing the visibility of older people. Indeed, my research has shown that in some cases the performance of age on stage, can inadvertently augment the normative construction of ageing and old age. Abi Morgan’s Lovesong succeeds in offering a multi-temporal portrait of love and age, while raising issues around the sexual desire of older people. However, in predicating a binary between youth and age, Lovesong does reinforce a narrative of decline. Moreover, Morris and O’Connor’s Shakespeare adaptation, Juliet and Her Romeo casts aged actors to play characters of the same chronological age – they are not required to ‘act old’ – but a decline narrative is reinforced by giving the characters walking aids to exaggerate the physical frailness and dependence suggested by normative old-age ideologies.
Turning to the more recent output of new writing and cross-age adaptations for older people: in Abi Morgan’s Lovesong and Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, there is a focus on degenerative illness in old age, which culminates in death by assisted suicide. In Agewise, Gullette describes the allegorical notion of the Eskimo on the ice floe as being a construction in society by which ‘social murder, coerced suicide or voluntary self-extinction of elderly people as an age class is necessary or even desirable’ . Although Maggie is terminally ill, Lovesong does depict that she takes her own life quietly, nobly and without any portrayal of pain. The ease by which Maggie is able to take leave of the world serves to reinforces a narrative of decline by illustrating a diminished worth of older people and the value of a living a long life. Narratives such as these can also signal ageing as a life process to be feared and repelled by younger generations.
The representation of a person with a diagnosis of dementia in Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer goes some way to representing a multifaceted performance of age in its full ‘temporal depth’ . Wilson garners a sense of the ‘lived’ experience of an older person by using four different actors, representing different ages in Flora’s life, a young girl and a voiceover by incorporating the very current and ‘various theoretical angles in age studies’ . Moving away from the sensationalist headlines and statistics in our media, Wilson presents a view of dementia ‘from the inside’. In researching and seeking new performative ways to present the experience of a dementia sufferer, and to resist a sensationalist approach, Wilson’s Autobiographer makes a valuable contribution in presenting the experience as it is lived out by an older person with dementia.
The autobiographical performances of Liz Aggiss, Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw allow the representation of age to move away from the fictional portrayal of a character and goes some way in bringing the spectator ‘closer to what is real’ . The persona of the performer becomes the central content of the work and in doing so offers a real representation of the ageing body and the lived experience of an older person. However, Aggiss, Weaver and Shaw are white women of relative privilege and further research into autobiographical performance would be beneficial as a way of exploring the experience of decline narratives with other socially marginalised groups.
The study of age in performance remains a topic of unchartered and rich debate and it falls to those performance-makers who are aware of the challenges faced by the senior members of our societies, to interrogate the ‘real’ lives of older people and find new ways to represent these on stage. As a way of re-appropriating and exploring the decline narratives that have been assigned to older people, it would prove useful to work with older people to devise performances that reflect their individual experiences. In the same way that Lois Weaver worked with the residents of Rose Court, performances created by older people will serve to empower our ageing population further; providing a point of contrast to the younger generation of theatre-makers who create performances about old age which are then enacted by ‘real’ older people.
Further research should be conducted into the exploration of cross-age performance as it has not been given the same level of attention as similar theoretical approaches to cross-gender and cross-racial performance. This became highly apparent during my research gathering for this dissertation. Yet, my initial impetus for conducting this research into the representation of older age in contemporary performance was borne out of Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof (2000) and the way that this work was able to deconstruct the association between physical movement and youth, as a means of making the older body visible.
Further to this, more substantial research into intergenerational performance, as a method of countering decline narratives, would assist in enabling young and old people to view ageing as something to be grown towards and not something that should be hidden or feared.