No future?

Having gone on last year about how and why there’s not much science fiction theatre [1], I felt duty-bound to go and see Tamsin Oglesby’s Really Old, Like Forty-Five, which is unashamedly set in the future. It deals very directly with the question of what’s going to happen as an increasing chunk of society is over working age, and the sorts of ideas that might get floated to address this.

So it is – I know it’s a heartsinking phrase – an “issues play”, but a satirical one, with plenty of incidental jokes along the way. It’s set in Britain some time in the near-future. (I think I caught “midway through the 21st century” in an early speech, but then couldn’t find it in the published playscript.) It focuses on three elderly siblings, Alice, Robbie, and Lyn. Also in the forefront are Cathy, Lyn’s daughter, and Dylan, Alice’s grandson. At the same time, there’s a world of policy-wonks inhabiting an upper level of the set coming up with bright ideas about how to deal with the problems of old age. We’re asked to believe that, along with an increasing number of people over 65, there’s also been a huge leap in under-16s without a stable family to look after them. Hence the old are presented with two new options. They can adopt one of these children (as Lyn does) or otherwise prove they’re capable of work. Or, especially if they’re suffering from dementia, they can go into the new “Arks”, hospitals where they’re cared for free of charge but are required to participate in tests for new anti-Alzheimer’s drugs. There also seems to be limited scope for euthanasia, but it’s not central to the play.

The good things first. As a production, it’s energetic, and there are some fine performances on stage. The show-stopper, actually, is Michela Meazza as a robot nurse: a sufficiently non-human performance to be well into uncanny valley. Of the siblings, Marcia Warren as Alice is the most affecting, not least because she seems most fully prepared for what old age olds; Gawn Grainger, as Robbie, is all too convincing as someone who desperately and implausibly wants to hang on to his youth.

The paragraph about the bad things is going to be, I’m afraid, much much longer. An issues play like this actually, oddly, has many of the same problems a science fiction story does: how do you give the audience the factual information they need to understand what’s at stake? This play uses that old device, a lecture given by one of the policy experts. There are some decent jokes, but the point is made painfully clear that this play is meant to be good for you. The striking thing, actually, is how little has changed. People still read newspapers, use computers much like the ones we have, and play console games on their televisions. It’s as if the author hadn’t cared to think about the world beyond the immediate sphere she was concerned about. In fact – for the sf fan – the tone is very similar to the sort of light satirical sf you’d have found in, say, Galaxy in the 1950s. An idea is offered, some consequences are worked through, and it’s left as a dire warning. There are, of course, very much more sophisticated treatments of this idea in sf: Geoff Ryman’s VAO is the obvious example to spring to mind, but also Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, James Tiptree Jr’s Brightness Falls from the Air, Logan’s Run or (admittedly a very different kind of work) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

The real weakness of the play, though, is how little it exploits the potential of its subject matter. Any work about old age will to some extent use two vast potential sources of emotional weight: memory and death. This play hardly uses the first, and the second only becomes a presence half an hour before the end. You could get more sense of dread from reading the first ten lines of Larkin’s “Aubade” than from these two hours. A lot of time is spent, instead, on the dynamics of the family, on attempts to avoid thinking about old age, and on a rather overworked metaphor about turtles. There’s very little sense that these characters have a past, and when they do talk about it their reminiscences seem weirdly second-hand, unfelt. Equally, the political material lacks precision in how it’s presented. Do these policy-wonks work for the government or for pharmaceutical companies? Or is a convergence between the two being suggested? And given how quickly the Ark project seems to go wrong, it’s implausible that the consequences wouldn’t get played out in public – yet this seems to be what the play suggests.

I’m sure that an affecting and hard-hitting play about how old age is seen could be written without the sf elements that Oglesby has co-opted. There is, for want of a better word, a problem of gearing between the family scenes and the sf ideas here. Given how many people now deal with the agonising problems of dementia and old age, it’s a real shame how much this play seems like a missed opportunity.

[1] And I’m not the only one.

2 thoughts on “No future?

  • February 14, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    There's an uneasy relationship between "issues" and art, and not just in the theatre. But to stick with that for a bit–I'm still, decades on, trying to articulate why I find Shaw amusing, engaging, and interesting and Ibsen thin and dull (even after living more than half my life in Minnesota). Both aimed at engagement with social issues and problems, but Shaw always struck me as punching through the problem-play's focus on the historically and sociologically local to connect with something less constricted. I think maybe comedy has to do that, while the non-comic social-realist playwright is stuck with trying to animate a sociology or psychology textbook. I know that I am in the minority, but I can't sit through O'Neill or Miller (let alone Elmer Rice) and am not much moved by Tennessee Williams. (For some reason, I find that film can handle similar the same material without making me look for the exit. And, oddly enough, so can musicals, unless they're by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.)

    I suspect that what I'm reacting to is the problem of allegory, the age of which we are supposed to have left a good 400 years ago. The fruit-and-chaff moral/aesthetic attitude that flourished in the middle ages distrusted the senses in general and pleasure in particular and saw art as a delivery system for propositions of the morally improving kind. There's a similar attitude still at large, and you're in its presence every time the first comment about a story or play or film or song is that it "addresses important issues." There are plenty of people for whom subject matter trumps execution, which explains the volume of bathetic memoirs and abuse/addiction-of-the-month narratives.

    The power of, say, the Larkin poem does not reside in simply addressing the fear of mortality–every geezer with an operating nervous system does that after every funeral. Instead it's in the execution, the marrying of the raw experience to poetic form, the attempted taming of fear by articulating it, the flashes of precise recognition. And while the poem belongs to a genre, it is not exactly like any of the other members of its family–it is both general and very particular.

    Great art can address great issues, but it can also examine smaller matters and remain great ("Whenas in silks my Jula goes. . . ."). That is what issue-oriented art seems to have trouble grasping: that issues are not enough–that, in fact, they are neither necessary nor sufficient.

  • February 15, 2010 at 3:51 am

    Make that "Julia." (Jula goes in for flannel.)

    And strike "the same" toward the end of the first paragraph.

    (I'd edit my badly-proofread posts if I had the secret decoder ring.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *