By morphing from carer to cared-for, actors in a powerful new play remind us that we are all ageing – and deserve love and respect
It sometimes feels like we’ve stopped being human, we’re just commodities.”
Elizabeth’s mood was low, and Joyce sympathised.
“Know what you mean, we’re objects of care, not people.”
Another post-bingo chunter at my companions’ elderly persons’ unit (EPU). As usual we had homed in on the travails of longevity, because, like it or not, it’s a total game changer. All of us, young and old, are confronted with issues, dilemmas and conflicts which did not occur in the good old days, when we died on time. It’s about perceptions, how the young see us, how we see them. We need new eyes.
A week earlier, I had been in the audience for an extraordinary play, The Lounge, by Inspector Sands, which explored these novel issues with an unusual sensitivity. The portrayal of old age requires a delicacy of touch to avoid caricature, a courage and integrity to preserve all its ugliness and beauty. The Lounge and its three versatile actors took some very risky steps and never put a foot wrong. It opened with three “elderly” armchairs on stage, identical to those in our EPU; two figures stood in the shadows at the wings and a woman came forward and stood staring ahead: half manic, half defiant. We knew from the programme that she was 97, and initially her appearance belied this. Challenging. Human. Ageless. Then in an explosive moment of theatre, she crumpled and contorted into geriatric reality, to be helped to sit down by the care workers.
From that moment, we were enthralled as the drama demanded our engagement. It tossed us about, teasing our loyalties, as the three actors moved seamlessly between parts, one moment carer, the next cared-for, one moment busy and bothering, the next collapsed and conniving.
It asked difficult questions. Why were the careworkers from eastern Europe? Was their behaviour condescending or affectionate? Was their language impertinent or comforting? It presented uncomfortable conundrums. Food concealed in a handbag, the struggle over control of the TV remote, dreams of elite uber-care and nightmares of bog-standard “carebots”.
Every exchange required us to make choices and judgments. Our sympathies were made to swing wildly between the carers, the management, the generations. We experienced the exasperation of the care workers at the perversity of the elderly residents – breaking rules, sabotaging food, or refusing to speak. Then some small detail, a phrase, an expression, made us feel the helplessness and indignity of old age.
Two images especially have haunted me. There is a visceral scene when 97-year-old Marsha watches dislocated and distraught as her possessions are brutally auctioned off after the sale of her house as worthless tat; she had become disposable, a commodity without value, and she knew it.
The constant metamorphosis of the actors from carer to cared-for reminded us that the reaper waits for us all The other involved the grandson who had come to deliver a birthday present to his grandad, who has gone awol. While he waits for the errant granddad, grandson delivers a sustained rant about the good fortune of the older generation compared to his own millennial disadvantages, which ends in a limp acknowledgment that maybe his grandad had earned his privileges, after all. The rant over, grandson morphs into grandad.
This dramatic ploy, the constant metamorphosis of the actors from carer to cared-for reminded us that the grim reaper waits for us all – no distinctions, no exceptions. And now that we live longer, he is tormentor as well as terminator.
If we are to confront these added years with dignity and, yes, even joy, as we wait in the lounge for our turn to be called, we need above all that human genius of social connection which feels another’s pain, which walks in others’ shoes.
The Lounge makes a dramatic plea for this in its presentation of crumbly life in all its raw reality, the frailty and fortitude, the mischief and meanness. It gave new life to my old eyes, and when the lights came back on, I looked round the auditorium at an audience with hardly a grey hair in sight. I left hoping that their young eyes had also seen something new.
The Lounge is at the Soho Theatre, London, until 20 May. Box Office Tel: 020 7478 0100.
Stewart Dakers is a 78-year-old community voluntary worker