Two of my most interesting theatre outings in recent weeks have been to shows by theatre legends - featuring some very feisty ladies of a certain age. We often hear about the lack of good parts for older actresses (other than Judi Dench), and it's no doubt true. But in Peter Gill's new play, Another Door Closed
at Bath Theatre Royal, and Lucia's Chapters of Coming Forth by Day
by Mabou Mines, which I saw at the Kilkenny Festival we are treated to extraordinary and bold performances by older actresses; reminding us of how much we loose out if we don't provide space on our stages for the extraordinary life-and-art experience that actresses like June Watson and Marjorie Yates (in Another Door Closed) and Ruth Maleczech (in Lucia's Chapters) bring to the theatre.
That said, the performances are very different - and that is to do with both the difference in the productions, and also the difference in the acting traditions of these performers. Peter Gill, of course is one of Wales and the UK's foremost playwrights and directors, and in Another Door Closed he takes on both roles. The piece is certainly not naturalistic - there is a lyrical complexity to the language which takes it far from the day-to-day, and a heartbreaking precision in the most telling moments ('Will there be pain dear?' one sister asks the other out of the blue. 'Will there be time?') However, this lyrical, fragile world grounds itself in the realistic character-observation of the actors. We know these women, though their history, as it is slowly revealed, surprises us. The actresses seduce us with familiarity and then surprise us with an undercurrent of suppressed pain.
Ruth Maleczech, coming from the tradition of New York experimentalism, does the opposite. Jumping from mood to moment with an athelete's precision, almost bouncing around the stage on an extraordinary cantilvered chair, and responding as much to sound and light cues as to other people, she is always an artist creating a world on stage, and it is the sudden appearances of a seemingly real character which surprise and shock us; ultimately tearing apart our hearts.
I worked with Ruth during my formative years in New York and I still find her capacity to display both the artifice and deep humanity of performance in the same breath awe inspiring.
The lesson of course is that we need to see more of our older actors, and particularly our actresses, not in the kind of character roles they are often given, but at the centre of our stages, showing us what they have learned about what theatre and art can be.