From Aristophanes, to Shakespeare and Honoré de Balzac, the elderly’s decline into decrepitude has long been associated in comedy with a return to childhood. Here, though, is a play that tries thinking more deeply about what that might mean – with unfortunately mixed results.
Devised by award-winning Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, Shadows has a simple premise. Four elderly adults form a silent cast on stage, while children’s faces projected onto floating white orbs speak on behalf of them. It is an intriguing device that manages to conjure a sense of both earnestness and entrapment, representing how the elderly cannot necessarily think or act as effectively as they used to despite their intent. Yet we never get beyond this initial intrigue because Shadows, shockingly, has no plot development to speak of.
Dialogue throughout is conversational and generic, with pleasantries of “how are you” or “it’s been so long” all spoken by the children with a naive charm. But everything is stuck in a continuum of repeated phrases and sentences, engrossing us in a demented logical reality that fails to account for the theatrical expectations of the presumably undemented audience.
As they switch between monologue and conversation, the children intermittently disappear and reappear on the various floating white orbs for no obvious reason. I try working out if certain children have personalities. Is one more scared? Is another more quick to laugh? It soon becomes clear that, if there are distinguishing characteristics, they are far too subtle to have any kind of resonance.
Meanwhile, a cast of four elderly actors sporadically transition between sitting silently in the semi-gloom, to performing random skits that had no apparent relation to the dialogue being spoken. These include a slow walk along the back of the stage, a wistful tinkle on the piano, or at one point, a rather alarmingly prolonged kiss on a chaise-lounge.
Boya Bøckman’s videography is certainly technically impressive. His design is also evocatively Nordic, the backdrop being a large window through which the brightly-lit breezy trees of midsummer transition into the brooding darkness of the Norwegian polar winter. But the power of this dramatic space is lost as a result of there being no drama to fill it. Nothing ever progresses: all is frozen in a void of sparse abstraction.
As an installation in a gallery, Shadows may have some credibility. But its otherworldly charm fades on the stage because it never moves beyond its premise. Just as the children are stuck in their white spheres, so the play fails to carry any kind of development. It ends up a totally meaningless piece of drama, thankfully only playing for three nights in London.
Shadows played at the Coronet until 9 November. For more information, visit The Coronet Theatre’s website.