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.

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Comment by steve fisher on August 28, 2009 at 15:32
Well said John. I'm rather keen to see older actors - I saw Linda Marlowe at Edindurgh last year and she was fantastic; i'd waited years to see her and was not disappointed. A recent Theatre clwyd play (cant remember title at time of writing sorry) had a bunch of good young talented actors but none so good as the much older woman amongst them, who was a delight to watch and who demonstrated that energy and talent doesn't have to fade with age. But the constant problem is that the industry doesnt support actors, writers or directors into their later years; so many give up the profession to earn a living wage elsewhere, resulting in a youthful perspective that perhaps can't help but neglect the diversity of talent and stories our older artists bring us. Lets hope we don't lose that altogether - after all, none of us are getting any younger!
Comment by Sarah Argent on August 26, 2009 at 7:20
I agree absolutely, John ... but also, Marjorie Yates was a fantastic actor when she was younger. I remember being blown away by her performance in Stephen Lowe's Touched directed by Richard Eyre back in 1977!

The skill and experience which older actors can bring to the stage is one of the reasons why I've been delighted to work with Kevin Lewis (who's 53 - hope he won't mind me revealing that publicly) on a show we created last year for the very youngest audience - aged 6-24 months. I think his ability to tune into, respond to, and play with this incredibly demanding audience with such sensitivity, respect and bravery is a result of many years' experience. As you say, seeing older actors not only in character roles can only strengthen our theatre.

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