Kaite O’Reilly discusses her latest project, a play that tackles the taboo of aging.
Even as a child, I was drawn to taboos. What was hidden, or not to be brought to everyone’s attention was – and remains – hugely attractive to me. I loved to expose the unmentionable, to revel in revealing the forbidden, not just out of mischief, but to see the reaction this provoked. I wanted to talk openly about what the grown-ups mentioned in lowered tones and coded messages, to question their absolutes, to view things from the other side. As I matured, this curiosity led me to theatre – the place to explore all that it is to be human – where nothing is verboten.
As a playwright, I’m tempered by the times I live in, influenced by the debates surrounding me. Two themes caught my attention and imagination several years ago when I started writing Cosy when on attachment at National Theatre Studio in London – the cult of youth in an increasingly ageing population, and exit strategies.
The invisibility of women ‘of a certain age’ in our media has been a hot topic of late. It’s an absurd situation, as in our maturity we’re more likely to be confident and vibrant, shedding the insecurities of a younger age – yet the faces of teenage models sell anti-wrinkle cream for the over 40s in magazines and actresses over thirty five are deemed ‘too old’ to be the love object of men several decades their senior – a Hollywood fact fabulously pastiched in Inside Amy Schumer – Last Fuckable Day.
Although the recent employment of eighty year old Sophia Loren as ‘the face’ of’ a beauty brand caught the headlines and suggested a turn in the tide, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. We live in a youth-loving society that seems to give little value to maturity and experience, especially of the womanly variety. Immediately I knew I wanted to explore this, in the company of six female characters ranging in age from sixteen years to seventy-six. Through a classical device of three generations of one family, I chose to explore complex emotions and perceptions from myriad perspectives, from one embarking on adult life, through those in the middle, to one nearing the end of it.
The second issue that demanded my attention as I started sketching in ideas for the new play is one of the most important in recent times: assisted death. The argument has raged for years, splitting political parties as well as the disabled community, carried into parliament with the Marris Assisted Suicide Bill in September 2015, with opposing groups campaigning on the Westminster streets outside. Dignity in Dying and Care Not Killing were engaged in a face-off, divided between ‘My Body, My Choice’ and ‘Better Living, Not Easier Dying’. By the time the Bill was defeated in the Commons by 330 votes to 118, my play was fully formed.
Cosy is not a drama about assisted suicide, or death. It is a dark comedy about living, and the realities and options that entails. We all have to die, but what makes a good death? Such questions often cause discomfort; I’ve actually seen people flinch when I describe the central themes of Cosy as ‘a gallows humour family drama about getting older, end of life and exit plans’. Poke, poke, prod, prod: there goes another taboo.
I don’t fully understand why we in this particular society seem so afraid of death. It is the one certainty we have, and yet we continue to ignore it, seldom thinking of our demise, and how we might want to manage our old age and what comes after. It’s considered to be morbid to want to shine a light into this dark and neglected corner. Many think it is gloomy. I think it a source for wry observations and, as we’ve discovered in rehearsals, raucous comedy.
There’s certainly been a lot of laughter in our rehearsals so far, and long, tender conversations. The Cosy company is a treasure trove of Welsh actresses – Sharon Morgan, Ri Richards, Ruth Lloyd, Llinos Daniel, Bethan Rose Young and Sara Beer, led by director Phillip Zarrilli. With an award-winning design team featuring Simon Banham, Ace McCarron and Holly McCarthy, I feel fantastically fortunate. We’re a solid team, many of us collaborating before – Simon and I on NTW’s Persians; Ace, Phillip and I on The Llanarth Group’s Told by the Wind, Simon and Holly on myriad productions. We’re a mature bunch willing to take on a grown-up subject with equal irreverence and sensitivity. Humour allows us to study the absurdity and poignancy of being mortal, while also acting as a buffer against more painful aspects.
I want to handle this often feared topic with wit, as well as sobriety and respect. I love human beings ability to live joyfully and in the moment, despite the knowledge our time is finite and we will all die one day. How these two opposing perspectives co-exist is fascinating to explore theatrically – and the deceptions, avoidances, contradictions and confrontations within a family with distinct and different ethical, religious, and political perspectives.
As someone who identifies as disabled, I have long been part of a vibrant community known for its joie de vivre and gallows humour – created, perhaps, from our knowledge of the fragility and resilience of the human body. I hope I have brought some of the quality of this insight and perspective to the script, in a production I hope will be funny, quirky, honest, daring, and fully engaging emotionally and intellectually.
Cosy is the sole Welsh Unlimited Commission – an initiative aiming to embed work by disabled artists within the UK sector, hoping to reach new audiences and shift perceptions of disabled people. I hope we can help shift perceptions of that final curtain, too, and the means by which we shuffle off this mortal coil.
Cosy is at Wales Millennium Centre 8-12 March 2016. For more information, go HERE.
(Images: Farrow’s Creative)