Simon Stokes and Samuel West discuss After Electra at Theatre Royal, Plymouth
- Credit: Nils Jorgensen/REX
Old age is at the forefront of After Electra, a new play being put on in Plymouth. CATHY SAYERS meets Theatre Royal artistic director Simon Stokes and the play’s director Samuel West, son of actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales
Sitting down to discuss this new play in Plymouth is exciting. I’m with Theatre Royal Plymouth’s Artistic Director Simon Stokes and Samuel West, the play’s director. It’s being shown in The Drum, the smaller, more intimate, stage at the theatre.
All three of us soon discover we’ve something in common with the play’s main character Vergie: we have mothers of Vergie’s age and older. She is 84 and where the communality ends is that Vergie wants to end her life. She surrounds herself with family and friends to announce the fact at a birthday party. The tragic side of circumstances is offset by the jollity of a celebration of life. We’re left wondering throughout the play as to the specific reason why Virgie has had enough. Certainly at the beginning she is a healthy octogenarian whose mind is intact. There is some indication that one of her dreads is to end up in a home.
But this is just one of the themes throughout this wonderful piece which throws up so many eternal questions.
Simon Stokes commissioned April de Angelis to write the play: “The issues the play deals with are universal…there are some plays which deal with the ageing in men – King Lear for example – but not too many in families headed by a matriarch.”
That matriarch, cast by director Samuel West, is Marty Cruikshank. Born in 1943, she’s not quite Vergie’s vintage but certainly no spring chicken. Sam acted alongside Marty at the RSC 15 years ago, when he played Hamlet and she was his mother. After Electra he says “sets out to provide opportunities for older actors.”
Simon agrees: “We’re trying to redress the problem in gender but also in age terms and April, true to her word, came back with parts for 60-year-olds and a part for an 80-year-old which I hadn’t anticipated I must say! But it’s rather brilliant I think.”
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Simon explains that the programme has been created for the people of Plymouth and the South West. Straight away it was snapped up by London’s Tricycle Theatre and has a run there after its initiation at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.
The Drum is a specialist new play venue within the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Simon recognises the South West has an ageing population: “We do have a significant older audience who do want to see new plays and are very adventurous about what they come and see.” Sam is equally enthusiastic about the relevance of the play to Plymouth: “The identity and the pride that I hope Plymouth will have in the show, not just the theatre that made it but the people who are the theatre, the audience, who own it really. I think it will make it feel as though it’s very much theirs because that’s important.”
The play may be about an elderly woman wanting to end her life but it’s actually a great “teaser” as Simon says “of family undercurrents and the drama and comedy which comes out of that.” All the characters surrounding Virgie of course want her to live – why would she want to take her own life? Then we learn that she was a painter in her heyday and abandoned her children for a time to pursue this creative force as an artist. The issues around that unravel through two of her children Haydn and Orin. Haydn is a bereavement counsellor and acts somewhat as a commentator in parts: “Suicide” she says is “anger towards others turned in on the self.”
Then there is the married couple in their 60s, Virgie’s friends Tom and Sonia. It becomes clear that their 30-year marriage isn’t easy, and they too are getting older. Simon explains the play touches on how people feel about themselves and their opportunities within an ageing population.
Sam adds that, despite having dementia, his mother, Prunella Scales (the celebrated actress whose career rocketed after she played Sibyl in the classic 1970s Torquay based TV comedy series Fawlty Towers) still got enjoyment out of life. Only recently she did a voice over for Ikea beds which included reading an extract from Prospero’s final speech “our revels now are ended” from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Although she didn’t remember afterwards that she’d done it, she still has pleasure in living in the present and Sam says she performed magnificently and the ad is already up for awards. Likewise she joined Sam’s father, actor Timothy West, for a TV series about going on the canals. Her enjoyment is palpable: “I don’t always know where I’m going but I always enjoy getting there.”
Sam unsurprisingly is setting this show in the present. What will Virgie’s house look like though? Will her paintings that she cares about so much be predominant or not? Is she wealthy or finding it hard to scrape by? Whatever her financial position, Simon says “she’s used to having her independence and hasn’t accepted dependency, and she doesn’t want to go down that road.”
Sam agrees that the play is so resonant in today’s world: “We’re having daily debates about whether people can or can’t control their own deaths. Virgie it’s clear wants to have control over that aspect of her life.”
But why the reference to Greek mythology in the After Electra title? Electra being the story of how she and her brother kill their mother and her new husband who’ve, in turn, killed their father. There are no suggestions in the play that Vergie’s children would kill her. But Sam says there are “submerged and transmuted forces at work between mother and children which April is fascinated by and why there’s the reference to Electra in the title.”
Virgie isn’t portrayed as a so called ‘good mother’ in the play in that painting is her forte and passion. Her children are clearly “left behind” in her pursuit of her art. Sam explains his own situation. Having a working mother meant he often accompanied Prunella when she was acting. Was this a bad thing? It could have been but on the other hand they needed the money in the 1960s. He recently went to Chichester Festival Theatre and saw posters relating to a production his mother was in on the wall.
“It can’t have been that bad as I was a toddler and apparently she used to return after breaks with sand in her toes having taken me to the beach!”
This play is thoroughly modern as it confronts 21st century issues head on whilst maintaining a delightfully lighthearted approach.
To summarise Sam says it’s “frightening, borderline tragic and extremely funny.”
Definitely one not to miss.
After Electra is on from Thursday 12 – Saturday 28 March. To book visit theatreroyal.com or phone 01752 267222.
Interesting fact about the elderly in Devon:
28% of the county’s population is over 60 with the lowest percentages in Exeter (20%) and Plymouth (22%) and the highest in Torridge,(32%)West Devon (32%) and East Devon (36%). Nationally there are nearly 1.5 million people aged 85 and over. By 2050 there will be 5 million in the UK alone.
www.ageuk.org.uk/devon or ‘phone 0845 296 7810
Further points on The Drum
Hosts new writing from visiting companies
Puts on the majority of the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s produced and co-produced work
Maximum of 175 seats (as vs main ‘Lyric’ theatre’s capacity of 1320 seats
Flexibile performance space
Allows several different layouts including end on, promenade, traverse parallel, cabaret, thrust (3 sides) and round.
There are 2 wheelchair spaces in The Drum