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Phil Willmott: Is theatre inherently ageist?

Richard Franklin in Phil Willmott's Jason and the Argonauts (photo Sheila Burnett Richard Franklin in Phil Willmott's Jason and the Argonauts. Photo: Sheila Burnett
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I recently wrote a provocatively worded article, ruffling feathers from Islington to Charing Cross, proposing that, now Equity’s National Minimum Wage case had foundered a second time, anyone wishing to collaborate on a profit share might be left in peace to do so.

One dissenter bombarded my personal Facebook account with an eye watering 25 messages.This man’s most persistent angle was that I was too old to be relevant. Eventually I began satirising myself as decrepit then made my excuses and deleted the entire post.

I never thought my age might impede my thinking

Honestly, I’d never considered my age might impede my thinking or artistic judgement before, mainly because I work with artists of all ages every day and so far it’s just never been an issue. But there it was, slapped in my face. I realise I am now even older than the establishment figures which my younger self viewed with suspicion.

Suddenly – BOOM! – like a gift for my approaching 50th birthday, a whole new area to be cranky about: ageism.

Let’s get started. With me.

I’ve been asking myself am I ageist? It’s true in last week’s article I accused the seniors on our union council of exciting the newbies that all profit share could be converted to paid work. It was wrong of me to presume that just because they didn’t work in fringe theatre that they might not understand why and how so many of us do it.

So I need to apologise and to wish counsellors of all age well in their admirable attempts to find better working models for all of us.

More interestingly I’ve recently adapted and am now directing an adaptation of the Roman comedies of Plautus. He was the originating great-great-great (lots of greats) grandfather of the comic conventions which form the basis of farce, comedia and pantomime and modern sit com. I was scrupulous in stripping back the sexism but I have to admit that until I started getting abuse about my age I hadn’t clocked that the older characters are consistently the subject of ridicule for their pretensions and sexual appetites.

The central protagonist is seldom over 40

When we produce new writing or choose revivals it seems to me that the central protagonist is seldom over 40. There are plenty of exceptions, but it may be that whatever age we are, we’re somehow programmed to identify with the younger characters, the lovers, the soldiers, those battling or the victims of the establishment. Perhaps an essential factor in the escapism many find in theatre is the chance to relate to the young hero or heroine. Yet we can feel for Lear, for Henry IV, for Falstaff so perhaps Shakespeare can inspire us to put more older lives on stage.

Looking at the bigger picture I can’t recall our industry ever embracing and celebrating an emerging writer over 40. Presumably a rich life experience can result in some cracking plays. Where are they?

And those men and women who’ve spent a lifetime creating great work in regional theatre, it might be really interesting to see what they could bring to a first crack at stages like the Nationals or the Royal Shakespeare Company. But this is so unlikely to happen it almost seems absurd.

And yet conversely we’re told the majority of ticket buyers are over 40.

As people keep healthier for longer, including theatre practitioners, I wonder if we’ll see an older perspective emerging in UK theatre. Although, it must never be allowed to muscle out young voices, I welcome the onset of grey (or a rather fetching salt-and-pepper, in my case) power.

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