February 14, 2010

UK: The silver haired revolution

. LONDON, England / The Times / Entertainment / February 14, 2010 Youth is old hat — the elderly are slowly taking over the planet, dance, art, even youthful plays such as Romeo and Juliet By Bryan Appleyard In 1994, The Day Today — Chris Morris’s sublime satire on TV news — broadcast a report by “Eugene Fraxby” about an IRA dog bomb in Oxford Street. In the melee after the explosion, a stray dog ran through the crowd, causing panic. Police shot the suspect dog, but also killed several passers-by. This did not concern Fraxby. “Being old,” he reported, “they would have died soon anyway.” Morris, his generation’s greatest satirist, was telling the nasty truth with his usual savagery. We do not value the lives of the old because they will soon be dead. Now Morris’s brother Tom, director of the Bristol Old Vic, is making the same point, with less savagery, but perhaps more depth. He is directing Romeo and Juliet, a story of the fatal love of a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy. Nothing odd about that, except that Morris’s Juliet is to be played by Sian Phillips, aged 76, and his Romeo by Michael Byrne, aged 66. They are both slightly young for the parts: Morris has conceived the lovers as being in their eighties. Being old, they will die soon anyway. For the moment, however, they are hopelessly, rapturously in love. “There’s no reason falling in love at the age of 80 should feel any different from falling in love at the age of 15,” Morris says. This is, in its way, just as subversive a remark as Eugene Fraxby’s. Popular sentiment may agree with the condescending teenager Cher, in the film Clueless, that “old people can be so sweet”, but it emphatically does not endorse the idea that their feelings have anything like the depth and significance of teenagers’. A wrinkly R&J was conceived at Battersea Arts Centre in 1997 by Morris and Sean O’Connor, now a television producer. They were watching Rupert Goold rehearsing Shakespeare’s play with “lots of beautiful young people”. O’Connor suggested 80-year-old protagonists, and somehow the idea would not go away. Apart from anything else, Morris quickly discovered that the play needed surprisingly little adaptation. The Bristol production has a new prologue, but the play is, otherwise, largely intact. Changing the ages simply results in a kind of mirror-reversal. With teen heroes, it is the parents who get in the way; with wrinklies, it is the children. Related Links Judi Dench and Peter Hall play tug of love The real justification for the show, however, is its intense relevance. “We thought about it more,” Morris says, “and it seemed more and more topical. We all have some experience of the big question about whether an older relative should be kept at home or should be moved into residential care, of what sort of freedom and control should be applied to older members of the family when they become infirm. As the population ages, it becomes a more and more pressing question.” This is the big point — a growing awareness of the demographic change taking place. In a new book, Peoplequake, the science writer Fred Pearce provides startling evidence. The average citizen of the world is currently less than 30; yet, when he dies, that average age will have risen to 50. The average age in Britain is 39 and rising, although it may stabilise or fall if mass immigration continues. Thanks to a crash in its birth rate, in the space of 30 years Italy has gone from being Europe’s youngest country to its oldest; after Japan, it is now the second oldest country in the world. There are only 1.3 Italian taxpayers to each pensioner. For reasons that are not always clear, birth rates are plummeting across the world. Meanwhile, people are living longer. Life expectancy has soared. The global figure a century ago was 30. Today, it is 66, with the Japanese, the longest-lived, surviving on average to 79 for men and 86 for women. Surprisingly to most demographers, life expectancies are continuing to increase. Whether we like it or not, the world is rapidly growing more wrinkled. Pearce is optimistic about this process. “After the adolescent ferment of the 20th century, perhaps humanity needs the calmer, wiser influence of an ageing society. It could be the salvation of both Homo sapiens and our planet.” He quotes the American historian Theodore Roszak: “Ageing is the best thing that has happened in the modern world, a cultural and ethical shift that looks a lot like sanity.” Well, maybe. The good news is that Morris is not alone in giving more artistic space to the old. At the National Theatre, there is Tamsin Oglesby’s play Really Old, Like Forty Five, a comedy that deals directly with the problems of age. At the Barbican in April, you can see Pina Bausch’s great dance-theatre piece Kontakthof “with ladies and gentlemen over 65”. The French artist Louise Bourgeois is exhibiting new work around the world at 98. Judi Dench, at 75, is playing Titania, queen of the fairies, in (79-year-old) Peter Hall’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston. Oh, and there’s Mamy Rock, aka Ruth Flowers, a 69-year-old granny from Bristol. Smothered in bling, she is DJing at the hot Paris nightclub Queen. “I thought, ‘I can do this,’” she has said. “My husband had died, I was retired, I had the time, so why not?” On top of this, there is some evidence that the advertising industry, which has long been in denial about the existence of any human being over 30, is finally waking up to the demographic facts. Increasingly positive images of, and campaigns aimed at, the elderly are appearing. Even Jane Fonda, once the priestess of the cult of youth, has been advertising cosmetics for the over-sixties. This has been a long time coming. Francis Fukuyama, the American political economist, said to me some years ago that he was baffled that, in spite of the increasing numbers of the over-fifties and their con­siderable spending power, advertising and marketing were still overwhelmingly targeted at the young. The world is full of Woopies — well-off older persons — but the media didn’t seem to, or would rather not, notice. There are now signs of change, but it’s a process that is both agonisingly slow and eminently reversible. The currently dominant babyboomer generation, now aged between 46 and 64, is hypnotised by the spectacle of youth. They resist the category of “the old” in favour of a perpetuation of their own younger days — they still listen to rock and pop, buy the new-media technology and, in extreme cases, ride Harleys, sport ponytails and smoke dope. They were the first generation to have something called “youth culture”, and have never got over it. As a result, even in middle and old age, they continue to regard youthfulness as a condition to which all human life should aspire. Hall looks bemused. “Really? I have no memory of that at all.” “Oh, yes,” Dench says firmly. “And we had a picnic each night inside the monument. They asked us for our favourite food, and we said it was seafood and a glass of champagne. And on the last night, there it was. You’d never have known from the front.” “In 1962, at the end of the Dream,” Hall recalls, looking at his leading lady, “I said to this one, ‘One day, you’ll play Cleopatra.’ And she said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! A little runt like me? I couldn’t possibly. And I said, ‘Well, just bear in mind, when the time comes for you to play her, that I’m first in the queue.’ Twenty years later, the phone rings and it’s Dame Judi, saying, ‘Hello. I’ve been asked by Stratford to go and do Cleopatra. Will you do it?’ And I said, ‘How long have I got?’ And she said, ‘Oh, about a week.’” The night before we met, Dench was watching Sir Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot with her old friend Roger Rees, an assistant set painter in the Stratford of her youth who ended up playing Hamlet there, an apprenticeship whose demise she mourns. “There just isn’t the opportunity for that to happen now, for young actors to learn,” she says. “When I went to the Vic between 1957 and 1960, I never left the side of the stage. Dame Peggy [Ashcroft] was fantastic to me when we did The Cherry Orchard...” Hall cuts in: “I only had reason to reprimand Dame Peggy once, and that was at the height of the Wars of the Roses [his 1964 cycle of Shakespeare histories]. At the matinée, it was reported to me that she was listening to the cricket on a tiny radio affixed to her helmet. A lot of junior actors who were cast as soldiers were coming for the latest score. She was passionate for cricket...” Despite their grumbles about long-lost repertory companies and stingy arts funding, neither veteran is gloomy about the state of the modern theatre. Hall points to the fact that his Stratford season ran from spring to autumn, but it now “trots on all round the clock”. What keeps him going is the next play: “I don’t like not to be in rehearsal.” As for the venerable queen who hates her wrinkles but cherishes her unnatural energy, what sustains her is work, doing the crossword, learning something new each day, the buzz of the undisclosed movie for which she has just signed up, beginning four days after the Dream closes. “I will lie down for four days, I think.” Related Links The silver haired revolution Dame Judi Dench: ‘I am very un-divaish’ More meaningful than any of that, though, is her misty-eyed pride about taking her grandson — “my Sammy” — to see Brendan O’Hea’s Cymbeline. She also took him to All’s Well That Ends Well — “Three times!” — and Jude Law’s Hamlet. “His attention span is normally short, but he sat throughout it without moving. If it’s interesting enough, you see, they will.” [rc] Copyright 2010 Times Newspapers Ltd.