Arts Theatre, Thu Apr 9
This play by Ronald Harwood is unfortunately timely and topical. Many of us have now had experience of dementia. You don’t need to have it yourself; being close to someone suffering the condition is harrowing enough. To see this group of characters dealing with aging and memory loss hurts a little. Some of us deal with it by seeing the funny side and laughing heartily at any suggestion of strange behaviour caused by ailing memories. For some, it is too raw to be a laughing matter. In any event, as a society we are collectively coming to terms with mass aging and its implications for all of us.
And so it is with the characters of Quartet. Each of them struggles to make sense of their senior days, quarantined in a nursing home for retired opera singers. The character Cissy (artfully played by Julie Quick) seems to cope best as she has forgotten enough of the past to be quite happy in the present. Wilfred (Brian Knott) doesn’t enjoy being old and institutionalised. He does, however, like to relive past sexual exploits and hasn’t given up hope that he may yet be able to sow his wild oats once more. The dignified, endearing, and just a bit pompous Reginald (Russell Starke) has made a conscious decision to block out parts of his past and is content to read and think about things like the value of art and poetry.
The peace he has made with life is rudely shattered when his former wife Jean unexpectedly becomes a resident of the nursing home, and he is forced to face the past once more. Of the four, it is Jean who struggles most with the idea that her independent life is over. She refuses to agree to a re-enactment of Quartet, a piece they had sung together decades earlier; the last thing she wants is to be reminded of how far she has fallen.
As could be expected with such an experienced cast, the portrayals of these aging opera stars are all excellent. Julie Quick’s Cissy is alternatively bubbly and fragile. Brian Knott as the sex-starved Wilf is really entertaining (fascinating to contemplate the notion of the aging sleazebag in nursing homes) and Jean Walker has us genuinely feeling for her retired diva – for a time she is visibly in a state of shock.
For much of the play a large part of the stage is tantalisingly unused. All is revealed in the final act as the characters prepare for their age appropriate reprise of Quartet. Costumes and make-up get their memories floating back down the years and we learn the truth behind who they really are and what happened to them.
“To hell with the people we once were” as Reginald would have it. “Our voices are a fond memory.” They are artists, and artists celebrate life, no matter how hard it becomes. It seems old age may as much as anything be about learning to accept imperfection.
A really fine play, with much to say about things that matter.
Quartet continues at Arts Theatre at 8pm until Sat Apr 18 with a 2pm matinee session on Sat Apr 18.