This article is from 2006.
Steve Cramer talks to Alvis Herminas, director of the EIF premiere of Long Life, a piece about the aged and how we treat them.
Perhaps you’ve reached that age where the hangovers have got a little longer; where what used to be a mild headache for a couple of hours in the morning has progressed to a nasty, groggy nauseous feeling all day. Or maybe you noticed yourself getting a wee bit slower chasing that bus this morning, and a tad more breathless when you reached it. Each of these trivial signatures of mild decrepitude might, when you think about it, act as a kind of memento mori. Each day we live puts us one step closer to the pursuing grave, and each sign of age places us that little tenuous step closer to those very old people who we see hobbling about in our community, who await the end with each new year’s calendar.
None of which will put you in a particularly merry mood for the Festival on the face of it. Yet there’s more to be said for the ageing process than this might indicate. There’s a promise of a certain redemptive beauty in the very old that lies at the heart of the new EIF showpiece from the new Riga Theatre of Latvia. This piece, devised by the company, which sees the lives of old people represented in a wordless performance as they move slowly about their home, has already toured with some distinction. This, its premier in the English speaking world for the Edinburgh International Festival is much anticipated.
The original inspiration for the story came at a historic moment for director Alvis Hermitas’ native Latvia, but one which we in the West have been inclined to gloss over with much smug celebration of something we called democracy, which had some ugly practical implications. In a document produced a while back, Hermitas commented: ‘As I was once told by a former prime minister of Latvia, during the transition period to capitalism, one of the conditions set by the international economic institutions (who monitored the economic transformation of East European countries) was that these poor states had to sacrifice their aged pensioners and the money was to be spent on investments but not on pensions. Thus all the people at my parents’ age became outcasts. In fact society economically isolated them and put in a condition of economic experiment that resembled a reality show with unclear rules of the game - whether the winner was one who died first or last. Our play provides a unique opportunity to become a witness to this “zoological garden.”’
It’s the kind of grim story of inequality, cruelty and ideological bigotry that we were, for political reasons, told little about in the West; just another silent crime committed by bankers. But if this was the starting point, Herminas, as I spoke to him more recently on the telephone, was keen to emphasise the broader appeal of a story about old people, which far exceeds its immediate cultural references. It’s about many things, not particularly the political context. We did a performance about extremely old people, and it’s really about age itself. No matter how much money you have, it doesn’t make any difference when you’re very old,’ he says.
The wordlessness of the piece, too, authenticates our experience of the old, according to Herminas. There is certainly a sense in which we render older folks silent by ignoring them, or mediating our conversations in particular ways. ‘It makes sense because old people either talk too much or they don’t talk at all,’ says Herminas. ‘One of our actors has a beautiful story from his own family life. All the men in his family from generations back reach a certain age, about 60 years old, then stop talking. There’s a real poetical power in that.’
This is an unorthodox story, where the set and props tell us far more than any spoken theatre could. Herminas reflects upon the objects used to contribute to the set. ‘The scenography of the performance is exceptionally important,’ he says. ‘In this show, we have thousands and thousands of objects and things that belonged to real people. They were not produced in theatre workshops. We got permission from the city of Riga to go to the apartments of lonely old people who had died. We got things from their apartments. There are thousands of things from grandmothers and grandfathers, even our actor’s families and my own family. It’s a real installation of real things. Every object has its own history; even an emotional history. There are even old photos that people took when they were tourists abroad.’
This idea of a living testament of the dead through objects inscribed with the history of real people is one that has a power all its own. For all the cruel proclamations of tyrannous economic systems, human stories live on. See this one if you want to accept old age, yours in the future, and some people’s now.
The Hub, Until 2 Sep, 7.30pm, £15