After Electra is the result of a commission of April de Angelis by the Theatre Royal Plymouth, to write a play that would showcase the badly underused talent of older actresses. Commendably, de Angelis didn’t simply write a play using this as its parameter, but rather used the subject as a jumping-off point for writing about how modern society feels about middle-aged and older women.
The play centres upon Virgie, an 81-year-old artist and child of the 60s, who decides to die. She takes the unusual step of announcing this to her friends and family at her own birthday party, the day of her planned suicide. “I’ve done everything I wanted to, and I’d like to go now before things get any worse,” she tells her astonished daughter, Haydn, in the first scene.
The play then enters into a funny and brutally honest discussion of life, ageing and death, picking intently at the issue of one’s right to die, and whether we owe it to our loved ones to carry on when we don’t want to. It also asks how far the responsibility of being a parent (but particularly a mother) reaches: should a person live for the rest of their lives in compromise with their children when they become parents, or should they be free to live in whatever manner they wish (or not at all) once the children have grown up? De Angelis makes us wonder if there would be such damning criticism of Virgie as a parent who perhaps put her own wishes before those of her children more than most mothers would, if Virgie had been a father rather than a mother?
Although the performance style at times verges on the Ayckbournish, with light, quipping, middle-class affectation rather than the real weight that the subject commands, the performances are all beautifully drawn. Marty Cruickshank is endlessly likeable and commands real respect and as the flawed, though remarkable, Virgie, fending off all her friends’ attempts to dissuade her from her plan with absolute stonewall self-belief. Veronica Roberts as Haydn becomes more and more interesting to watch as the play continues, sitting for the most part in shocked and slowly-simmering silence until her powerful catharsis in the final scene.
Kate Fahy and Neil McCaul are warm and hilarious as the openly unhappily-married Sonia and Tom, who snap obscene and spiteful insults at each other, but are entirely resigned to simply keep trudging along together. Rachel Bell adds a brilliantly Thatcherite ‘snap out of it’ mentality to the liberal, artsy feel of the gathering as Virgie’s headmistress sister, and Michael Begley’s sweet cab driver Roy throws the bizarre situation of the second half into perfect relief.
The play is endlessly refreshing, reminding us that life doesn’t end before it ends, and challenging, as Virgie puts it, our culture’s “special kind of contempt reserved for women who get old”. The characters swear, and confess, and pull each other up in a totally straightforward way that just wouldn’t seem realistic among a group of younger people with all their insecurities and self-consciousness. Here’s hoping that the strength and frankness of the older generations that de Angelis has captured in this play will inspire more playwrights to exploit this theatrically untapped area of human experience.
After Electra played at Theatre Royal Plymouth. For more information, see the Theatre Royal Plymouth website. Photo by Steve Tanner.