Who wants to be 100?
Colin Gibson reflects on the Roger Hall Play
I thought I was looking at a procession of pilgrims making their painful way towards the shrine of Lourdes. Elderly people struggling up the steep approaches, many of them using sticks and others pushing walkers. They heaved themselves up the steep steps to enter what was once the city shrine of Methodism, Trinity Church, now the Fortune Theatre. All of them had come to see Roger Hall’s latest play, ‘Who wants to be 100 (Anyone who’s 99)’.
I didn’t spot any ninety-nine year-olds, but the audience assembling on a hot Sunday afternoon was mostly in the 60 to 75 year-old range. Youngsters obviously had decided that they should be stretched out on the grass in the sunshine or go strolling along the main street, prattling to their friends on their mobile phones. Not for them yet a play that dealt with the last years of their lives—for we must all come to it.
Roger Hall’s play is set in a retirement home, actually the men’s sunroom and the individual bedrooms of the Regina Rest Home, where, as one of the characters brightly puts it, ‘we’re in preparation for landing…please ensure that seats are in an upright position and trays folded away…all we can do is pray for a smooth landing.’ As usual the dramatist gives us an exact sense of the small world his characters inhabit and of the world around it. Waiting for them is the hospital wing of the rest home—which none of them is quite ready for yet—and then that final posting station, the hospice, only to be spoken of in a whisper.
In brief scenes we meet the wives and partners of the inhabitants in the outside world, those who have to come to terms with the absence of loved ones, struggle to begin an independent life with new relationships, or collapse into a frozen world of grief and loss and loneliness.
We meet our cast of inmates as they chat in the sunroom, about to meet a new and very unwilling member of their tiny community. They are all men in an institution crowded with women, for as the Manager brightly observes, men seldom outlast women in the growing-old stakes.
There’s former successful lawyer and Queen’s Counsel Edwin, who’s lost all his money gambling but constantly follows the rises and falls of the stock market (we all have our dreams and obsessions). Then there’s big burly ex-All Black Leo, still determined to win even the silly games of push-balloon and Snakes and Ladders, but secretly in despair at the failure of his once magnificent body. And Charles, former Emeritus Professor of History, his bright mind, his fond memories and sharp observations of life now locked up by a stroke that has deprived him of communication: in his case Hall offers us moments when we access the real thoughts and words imprisoned by his loss of language so that we can understand his profound and incommunicable sense of frustration. And there’s the new boy, Alan, once a successful potter with a rich emotional and sensual life, trying to cope with alzheimers disease, the brain-sapping affliction of the aged, that has taken away his memory and all sense of place and time; who only knows that this is not, will never be his home, and who is furious with the wife who has left him here and the staff who offer such ridiculously childish substitutes for real living.
Out of such simple materials, Roger Hall fashions a tragicomic vision of life at the extreme limit of human existence, and discovers an indomitable will to continue to the last second of being. What these men are facing is death—their own death—handicapped as they are by every evidence of their own mortality. The play’s director noted that ‘in this play Death is a constant reality, with funerals the men’s favourite outings.’ At least they can return to their temporary home, having outlasted yet another of their kind, and discuss the event as a sort of after-match topic, giving points for the family’s or the funeral director’s choice of music and the quality of the free food!
At the very least this play explores some of our deepest apprehensions about our own mortality, our anxieties about how it will be for our bodies, minds and souls in the final period of our life. Did I mention ‘souls’? Does this play include God or religion or souls in its account of things?
Mostly not at all; these men are too preoccupied with sheer survival, with their own hopes and fears, their own little triumphs and failures, to think much about life after death. And perhaps Roger is right to leave religion and any sense of a spiritual dimension to life out of the account; in our deeply secular society that’s how it is now. Our predecessors thought much about death and the after-life (perhaps too much). They developed elaborate schemes and rituals to prepare the living for the shock of death. The Church taught them how to ‘make a good end’, and provided a belief-system of comforts and consolations.
It was fascinating for a church person like myself to observe how this dramatist presented an actual death—for one of the little group does die, and his companions and the staff attend his funeral. To the moving sounds of ‘Abide with me’ (well sung in harmony by all the cast) the neatly-dressed dead man stands upright once more, his physical afflictions over, and turns away from his friends and the audience to walk into—a purity of light. Perhaps that’s as far as Roger Hall dared go for modern secular New Zealanders.
I wish we could all see this play, those of us who are older and nearing the end of our lives, and those of us who are young and think to live for ever. We could have a wonderful conversation. Perhaps we should start such a conversation at church one day. Do we dare?