Edinburgh Fringe 2012
A multimedia performance that looks at the experience of middle aged children dealing with their parents’ aging.
Kin deals with the issue of aging parents. What is it like to be a middle aged child and watch your parents become old and frail? How does the relationship change or stay the same? How do you feel about them and your role in looking after them?
While this may sound a bit dry; it isn’t, and Kin powerfully blends elements of cognitive psychology, counselling, anthropology and social history with filmed and live performance.
It’s a one woman play, with writer Donna Rutherford also the live performer, although five other actors and actresses appear in a series of pre-recorded videos. Rutherford narrates between the videos, but makes it clear that the audience are involved too, referring to herself as the ‘conduit’ rather than the narrator.
It is made explicit that the issue is one that everyone in the audience can relate to, even if they think it doesn’t affect them now. ‘Perhaps a parent has died. Perhaps you’ve left your teenage son to look after his papa. Perhaps you are that teenage son thinking “I will never be old.”’ It’s not just us talking, this play says; this is part of your life too. It is not a performance to watch, but one to respond to.
As Kin blends therapy and performance art, so also it mixes live and recorded media. The stage is set with three televisions, in front of which are three tables laid for breakfast. Each table is slightly different: one has a cafetière and a rack of toast, the next a kettle and a tea caddy and the third a tin of hot chocolate and a bottle of milk, and on each one is a different sized hourglass.
This live set works on so many levels. Visually it is appealing with the carefully arranged repeating screens and tables, which are similar but not quite identical. It also provides a means of movement during the performance, as Rutherford progresses from one table to the next – a necessary counterbalance to an otherwise static set up of screens and narrator. It reflects the structure of the play too, which is divided into three sections dealing with relationship to parents, relationship to siblings and relationship to death.
However, the set works on a symbolic level as well. The tables make you think of old people sitting alone eating breakfast. They also encapsulate in that one meal the individuality of taste and lifestyle of different people, and it is poignant to contemplate a time when, perhaps through senility or being cared for in a home, it is no longer possible for a person to assert that individuality in choosing for themselves what to eat or a daily routine to follow.
The hourglasses are more explicitly metaphorical. As Rutherford moves from one table to the next she turns over the egg timer – first the biggest, then the medium one, then the smallest. She explains that the older an hourglass is, the faster it runs. The sands rub against the glass and against each other so they flow smoother and the hours get shorter and in the same way the years seem to pass more quickly as we get older. Lighting is used very effectively throughout to highlight the relevant part of the set and at the end the three egg timers are lit after the other to back up this point.
This live set complements the content of the videos. These appear on each of the three screens and feature actors talking to the camera about their relationships with their parents and their concerns in dealing with old age and death. These interviews are filmed against a simple backdrop with a framed photo of each actor’s parent and have a confessional, reality TV-feel, like the Big Brother diary room. Along with this there are home video-style films of the actors at home with their parents.
The monologues raise difficult issues about what it means to honour your father and mother in their old age: the pull between your own life and duty to those that brought you up, the unsettling reversal of roles when the parent becomes like a child, the distress in watching someone you love not only lose their physical ability, but possibly lose their whole self and personality, and the way this changes your relationship with siblings and draws attention to your own mortality.
Particularly moving is actress Alison Peebles, who cries as she shares her concern that because of her own illness she will be physically unable to care for her aging mother.
The performers are very open and vulnerable and there is a sense of taboos being broken as the actors confess things to the audience that they haven’t been able to say to their own parents directly.
Rutherford links the video performances with spoken word and unaccompanied song. She controls the whole piece and her commentary provides a metanarrative that draws together the personal and anecdotal in the videos.
The choice of an Americana soundtrack is surprising for a play so firmly set in Britain, but the sparse and melancholy sound compliments the subject matter, and there can hardly be a more appropriate introduction to the section on aging and death than the Appalachian dirge, O Death.
Kin is as much an installation or multimedia artwork as a play and it could equally be seen as a sort of anthropological study. Indeed a wider project related to Kin, the Kin Listening Post encourages the public to record their own experiences. It transcends the purely factual or academic though, as the whole thing is clearly so carefully scripted to control the visual, auditory and emotional progression. Like the best art it shines a stronger light on a real issue than something purely factual can do.
This show deserves five stars, not just for the unusual and imaginative set and emotional performance, but particularly for the transcendent nature of the piece. The subject is one of the most significant today, as we deal with an aging population that is living longer, while the next generation juggle busy lives and often physical distance for many years to care for aging parents.
The issues raised stay with you long after the play finishes and almost like therapy Kin requires you to react and consider how you yourself do or will deal with this situation in your own life. It’s an incredibly powerful bit of theatre.