It’s undoubtedly true that there aren’t enough parts for older actors, and the profession misses out on their wealth of experience. Who Do We Think We Are? seeks to redress the balance. Sonja Linden’s theatre company, Visible, had brought together a diverse group of talented older actors. The devised production Who Do We Think We Are? is their collective story.
Over the course of just over two hours, Who Do We Think We Are? covers an astonishingly varied canvas, as each of the actors plays themselves as well as characters from their pasts. The first half of the show details the world they were born into, with parents and grandparents who were actively involved in WWI, both in the UK and Europe. The show works by offering small snapshots of their family’s history – a brief foray into a Stalinist Gulag in Siberia; the sights and sounds of India during the era of the Raj; the experience of a Canadian grandfather who fought in the trenches in Europe and kept a promise to a fallen comrade.
The important events of the Twentieth Century form the backbone of the first half of the show, with an understandable emphasis on the two devastating World Wars. The second half of the show extends from the 1960s to the present day, allowing the actors to revisit the landscape of their youth, and tell their own often deeply personal stories.
Who Do We Think We Are? is a beautiful production, and it works exceptionally well in the Small at Southwark Playhouse, with the audience wrapping around the actors on three sides. The actors sit on the front rows from time to time, and there is an immediacy to their storytelling that is intoxicating. If anything, Who Do We Think We Are? tries to do too much, and with so many characters and scenarios, it can become dizzying in trying to keep up with time, place and person.
The overall effect of Who Do We Think We Are? is stronger after the break, with the personal stories resonating deeper than the fragmented childhood memories or acquired family legends. New Yorker John Moraitis’ recollections of avoiding the draft for the Vietnam War which he strongly opposed, and his eventual visit to the country in recent years, has a beginning, a middle and an end that satisfies the audience’s thirst for a well-told story. Similarly, Andrew Hawkins relives how a summer in Italy changed his life, and that proves as powerful a story.
Some of the stories left us wanting more. Romanian Imola Gaspar gives us insight into life under the despotic leadership of Nicolae Ceaușescu, but we wanted to know about the consequences of her decision to stand up for her beliefs. Overall we felt that there were perhaps too many stories and too many characters vying for our attention. Honing in on the stronger stories and developing them further would have given what was a thoroughly enjoyable evening even more impact.
We recommend Who Do You Think You Are?, especially to those who enjoy stories from Twentieth Century history. There are plenty of voices to hear, both male and female, European and American, united in a shared humanity.
The evening of tales is accompanied by the haunting music of cellist Francesca Ter-Berg. She is sometimes joined on keyboard by actor Trevor Allan Davies, and his extraordinary sung rendition of Aquarius is worth the entry fee alone.