Playwright Tristan Bernays spoke to Love London Love Culture about the world premiere of his new drama Old Fools, playing at the Southwark Playhouse from the 14 March 2018…
Could you tell me a bit more about how Old Fools came about?
Before I wrote Old Fools, I was writing these very high concept genre plays (sci-fi, horror and the like) and a very good friend said to me: “I bet you can’t do just a straight-up relationship play about two ordinary people.”
I took that as a challenge, but didn’t want to do a linear, straightforward play, per se – I wanted to add my own twist of jumping back and forth throughout the relationship, playing with memory and time, examining dementia along the way.
Then, two weeks later, a director friend said: “I need one more 20-minute short play for an evening of short plays next month to complete the evening – have you got anything?”
I quickly threw together some scenes and ideas that I had been toying with, and it was performed in the attic at Bush Theatre the next month. It went down a storm and I thought: “There’s a longer play in this…”
And that is how Old Fools started. Nothing like a challenge or a deadline to get you working.
Given your own family’s experience with Alzheimer’s, was it difficult to create a story that was so personally connected to you?
The Alzheimer’s element wasn’t actually too difficult – it was nice to go back over old memories, revisit my family’s past before my grandpa got too sick. The hardest part was making an emotionally honest play in which you have nothing to hide behind.
My last play Boudica had battles and sword fights and drums and zip lines and all sorts of crazy crap to distract and wow the audience. Old Fools has no set or stage directions to hide behind. Just the actors doing your words. It’s very exposing, rather terrifying but also an exciting challenge for a writer.
Outside your own experience – what other research into Alzheimer’s did you do?
There is an amazing documentary called Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell that follows a couple over 11 years from Malcolm’s first diagnosis to his ultimate death from Alzheimer’s.
It is utterly heartbreaking. I watched that at 9am, fully intending to spend the rest of the day working and writing. After that film, I could not do another thing for the rest of the day. It was devastating.
While developing Old Fools did you come across anything about the disease that you didn’t know about
The role of music amazed me. How even people who are seemingly so far gone that they cannot even communicate are able to become lucid and compelete when they sing or play music – it’s extraordinary. Funnily enough, the new Pixar film Coco plays with this very idea of music and memory, which is just wonderful.
When the play is performed at the Southwark Playhouse – is there anything particular you would love audiences to take away from the story?
I use a Kurt Vonnegut quote as an epigraph to the published playtext:
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”
That for me sums up pretty much exactly what I want people to take away from whole play.
How much are you looking forward to seeing Old Fools coming to life in front of audiences?
Well, I wrote this play nearly four years ago and tried to get in on for almost two years, until I had to finally concede defeat and consign it to the back of the drawer.
Then two weeks later the director Sharon got in touch and said “Can I put on Old Fools?” I love this play very much, it’s my most personal piece, and the fact that finally gets to see the light of day in front of an audience is both hugely exciting and and a little terrifying.
What can audiences expect from the story?
A very honest and very tender story about relationships. Sometimes they’re amazing; sometimes they’re fucking hard; but that’s the deal. Can’t have one without the other.
How would you describe Old Fools for potential audiences?
Heartwarming and heartbreaking, it will remind you to appreciate the happiness you have now and to tell the people that you love that you do indeed love them.