On old Arabic proverb says ‘death send his challenge in a grey hair’. This challenge of growing old is beautifully realised in the detailed study of life in nursing homes. Not a topic you would think would make for good theatre but you would be very, very wrong…
Campbelltown Arts Centre, Sydney (Opening at Carriageworks, Sydney 21 OCtober, 2009)
Saturday, 10 October, 2009
On old Arabic proverb says ‘death send his challenge in a grey hair’. This challenge of growing old is beautifully realised in the detailed study of life in nursing homes. Not a topic you would think would make for good theatre but you would be very, very wrong. The multilayered issues are beautifully portrayed by the ensemble of Theatre Kanatanka. The actors play the residents, their relatives, the nursing staff, cleaners and therapists in accurate, sad, and occasionally funny vignettes. Carlos Gomes’ sensitive direction amalgamates multimedia, music and action to produce a rich emotional event.
The six actors are listed as performer/devisers and the research they have undertaken shows. It states in the program that the actors struggled with the representation of time and the quality of time in nursing homes. It is easy to know why. Time becomes elastic when every little thing takes so long. There is no hurry anyway, no places to be, no jobs to be done. Reactions of the residents are slowed almost to catatonia in some cases and this breaking down of interactional parameters elongates time and changes perceptions.
Some of the opening wordless moments convey this distortion of time. An old man (Phillip Mills) in a walking frame takes 10 minutes to walk a few metres; an old woman struggles to seat herself (Kym Vercoe); a delusional lady (Katia Molino) has an exquisite and seemingly endless play of facial expressions flit across her face; an old man (Arky Michael) repeats the same phrase over and over again. All the while the TV displays tropical fish swimming endlessly in what seems to be an image carefully chosen to both sooth and stimulate but which in reality is an inane moving tabloid of fish trapped in the same environment, just like the residents.
There is the painful visit of a son to his aged and silent mother, who sits uncomfortably with hands twisted awry which cannot grasp her overlarge bib. The desperately banal one sided conversation of the son becomes increasingly more difficult to sustain and we see (via film on the back TV screen) the son’s inner thoughts. The interplay of not only this relationship but the intrusion of another old woman demanding a hug made the audience member beside me nod his head in agreement. That is the strength of this piece – its absolute veracity. The relationships portrayed, be they memories of ancient loves, fears or current interactions are rooted in a reality we all know.
Some dark humour lightens what could be an otherwise painful journey. One old woman tells us about her children- “I had two sons- the oldest one, Jesus Christ, -he’s a bit different ……and the younger one is Kevin”. Much of the dialogue is taken from visits and interviews to residents of nursing homes. Some of it becomes a surreal experience, as a delusional woman gives a Kafkaesque speech and later wears a birdcage on her head. A funny and uninhibited Greek man is perceived as a trouble maker. There is the sweet old woman of the title who waits endlessly in her black and white checked top for the bus to David Jones which never comes. A staff member sits down beside her and kindly thinks up new ways to redirect without injuring the illusion: “I think we’ve missed it, shall we have a cup of tea?” or “The buses are on strike, what about a biscuit?”
In other portrayals the juxtaposition of the brash reality and well meant professional interventions is painfully true. Loud pumping music accompanies the exercise class and makes us cringe. The balloon tennis goes horribly wrong. The forced cheerfulness of the Diversional Therapist (Kym Vercoe) calling bingo numbers (“At 23 years old I got a pierced belly button and became a diversional therapist”) makes us laugh. The staff talk to each other about intimate sexual encounters whilst dressing an old man. The cleaner, freed to say whatever he wants in front of these old people verbalises his own problems and tells them “Just go! Times’ up! Give us a break!” All represent painful but sometimes funny realities.
The cast are superb. There are so many nuances, such a wealth of layers meshed into this piece with moments that touch but never feel laboured. Kym Vercoe’s physical chracaterisations are contortingly true; Katia Molino’s facial absences and sparks of madness are spot on; Arky Michael’s sensitivity and pathos balance beautifully; Phillip Mills is touchingly pathetic; Rosie Lalevich is gorgeously real and Valerie Berry versatile and realistic. They work together cohesively and with precision.
The director calls this piece “poetic reflections in a nursing home” and it serves to remind us we are most of us going to be old one day. We might be in nursing homes ourselves. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, this play is like distant thunder at a picnic – it reminds us of what may come.
Season Opens at Carriageworks, 21 October, 2009