Over the past few months London has played host to a clutch of plays about old age, death and dementia. Not the jolliest of topics, but as they are precisely what I write about, I went to see each one. They were all very good. What really intrigued me, however, was the youth of their creators.
The oldest have just nudged into their 40s, while the youngest, Matthew Seager, writer and star of In Other Words – a deft exploration of dementia – is a mere 25. So, what on earth attracts these relative fledglings to subjects from which society (even its more mature members) often shies away?
The answer, according to 41-year-old Lucinka Eisler, who plays the lead in The Lounge, currently at London’s Soho Theatre, lies in theatre’s ability to overcome our “imaginative failure”. Certainly, The Lounge, In Other Words and Florian Zeller’s The Father – a powerful play about dementia that last year pulled in packed houses to the West End – all achieve this.
“We don’t imagine ourselves, or talk about where we will be, in 20, 30, 40 years’ time” Lucinka tells me. “As artists we began to wonder what we could contribute to the debate about why we in the UK are so unprepared for old age and death”.
Their answer, prompted by the death of two of the company’s grandparents and produced after in-depth research (aided by a panel of distinguished scientific advisors) is a quirky, quick-witted play charting a 97-year-old woman’s last day. Set in a care home, it highlights the terrors, invisibility and loss of old age, the divisive “them” and “us” labels that society imposes. Yet The Lounge is ultimately hopeful, revealing the strong human instinct to form bonds, no matter how unlikely.
In Matthew Seager’s debut play, In Other Words, he and his equally young co-star Celeste Dodwell age before our eyes (sometimes within seconds) from love-struck youngsters Arthur and Jane to a frail, elderly couple. It is riveting theatre, requiring acute observation and extraordinary acting. Their lives, including Arthur’s developing dementia, are played out to the soundtrack of their favourite song, Frank Sinatra’s Fly Me To The Moon.
Matthew told me he was inspired to write In Other Words, which played at London’s Hope Theatre earlier this spring, when studying for his degree at Leeds university. Researching applied theatre and care homes, he explored each of the senses with people with dementia and played music at the beginning and end of each session. He was amazed at its effect. “People who couldn’t communicate at all would stand up and sing along. I remember wondering how I didn’t know about this and thinking that one day I should do something with it”.
“I realised I was ignorant about dementia, about how severe and shocking it could be. I thought, no one knows about all this and how incredibly powerful music is.”
Already the toast of literary France for novels written in his 20s, 18 months ago Florian Zeller burst onto the West End with his drama, The Father, about an elderly man in the throes of dementia. In a disturbing and powerful piece of theatre, the audience is taken into André’s mind, sharing his confusion, frustration and fear.
Unlike Matthew Seager, Zeller (32 when he wrote The Father) had no ambition to explore dementia per se. “I wrote the play the way one has a dream,” he told the New York Times last year. “That is to say, unconscious of where I was going. It wasn’t until almost the end that I said to myself, ‘Ah, that’s what I was talking about, about senile dementia, about the moment when one loses one’s faculties, one’s sense of who one is”.
Zeller’s words answer my opening question. Young dramatists are drawn to explore old age because they are interested in people, in individuals in all their idiosyncratic, individualistic glory, regardless of illness, condition or age.
If the life in question is long, encompassing times that many of us have never known – the Second World War, food rationing, a life before computers, mobiles and Ipads, when only the rich boarded planes or travelled abroad – it is all the more appealing to young, creative brains whose medium of choice is the theatre. A medium which, according to Lucinka Eisler, is best placed to shift our imaginative perspective, challenge our mindset and overcome our reluctance to talking about old age and death.
Given the increasing numbers of elderly people in the UK, the frequent failings in their on-going and end-of-life care and successive Governments’ inability to come up with meaningful solutions, the arrival on the London scene of young playwrights keen to make a drama out of this particular crisis is to be heartily applauded.