Visible Ensemble was founded out of a frustration with the lack of serious roles for older actors. At some point, so it seems, you’ll only be cast as silly old grandma or friendly elderly man falling victim to a robbery. Where are the passions, the eccentricities, the needs of the senior citizen in fiction?
Visible’s first piece Who Do We Think We Are? addresses the issue as ten older actors take to the stage and tell stories of their childhood memories, their parents, the swinging sixties and many more. The material is devised by the company under writer Sonja Linden and incorporates historic events while presenting a human and multifaceted perspective on what happened. The personal nature of the work and the unusual sight of seeing so many mature actors on a stage combine to create a very intimate and engaging experience. It celebrates not only the lives, but also the professional skills of the company in a clever double play.
Perhaps most poignant is the scene in which Ruth Posner narrates, with childlike immediacy, being moved to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940 while Ann Firbank recalls another kind of relocation, as her father is sent to fight in the Burma Campaign. Meanwhile, Paul Humpoletz plays his father as he is ordered to the Isle of Man under the Enemy Aliens Act after fleeing to London from Hitler.
Sue Lefton’s direction is fluid, thoughtful, sparkling and inventive. The way the writing sees so many stories intertwine is often mirrored in the staging, when words and phrases come from all around the room and ultimately someone wins and starts telling their tale. The timing and feel for rhythm in the company is astounding, and imbues the piece with a sense of poetic accomplishment.
This is even further enhanced by Francesca Ter-Berg’s cello and the occasional piano by Trevor Allan Davies (including a truly wonderful rendition of ‘The Age of Aquarius’). While a certain melancholy is most often the mood, the stories are nevertheless full of hope, and you leave feeling empowered by the tales of human suffering and resilience. The final act is set in the now, and rounds off several of the narrative threads with integrity and playfulness.
This production drives past the cliffs of sentimentality but remains firmly on track. In line with Visible’s mission, the age of the actors is a fact not a gimmick. This is endlessly, endlessly moving theatre – go see,
Who Do We Think We Are? is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 15 November. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website.
Photo by John Haynes.