The Hub, Edinburgh
August, 2006

The all-time classic equivocatory Edinburgh review read: "Lovers of Latvian avant-garde drama will love this Latvian avant-garde drama." I am childishly happy to be able to re-use it verbatim.

Alvis Hermanis' dialogue-free piece for the New Riga Theatre shows a terrace-ful of old people (two couples, one single man) simply living. From a slow start as they crawl out of bed and perform their various ablutions, the piece shows them engaging in a day's worth of pastimes, activities and social visits with one another. Some sequences partake of silent-movie slapstick, as when one man tries to paint his ceiling without being able to straighten up and look at his work; in the end he is knocked off his precarious perch by a blow from his wife's walking stick. Some make sense only on further thought: it seems unusual that an old man should be tinkering in his home with strange electronic musical effects such as feedback loops, until you realise that even the students of Stockhausen and Boulez are now of pensionable age, and technology has brought awkward bleeps and squarks within anyone's range just as it has more conventional music. Some make no sense at all, as (for me) the final movement in which a social gathering breaks up in eccentric fashion.

Hermanis' object was to focus on elderly people just as they became socially and economically marginalised as a result of Latvia's convergence with the capitalist west. In this respect Long Life is admirable, as also in its attention to detail throughout and its ability to compel without a single intelligible word being uttered in its hour and three-quarters. Yet something makes me uneasy about the fact that the cast of five are in fact young people (all younger than Hermanis' 41 years). It is as if so little attention is being paid to old people that they are not even given the opportunity to portray themselves, but rather reduced to a form of theatrical exotica: as if the piece inadvertently becomes part of the very problem it sets out to critique.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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