Who Do We Think We Are?

Sonja Linden and the Company
Visible Ensemble
Southwark Playhouse (The Little)

Who Do We Think We Are?

Who do we think we are? This fascinating new play, written by Sonja Linden from material provided by members of the company, begins to give answers on many levels and asks more while presenting an entertaining and engaging evening of pure theatre.

The Visible Ensemble is a group of senior performers—they don’t give their ages but all are eligible for their bus passes and I would guess from 62 to late 80s. It was formed both to create opportunities for them to put their long years of experience and craftsmanship to use and to create exciting contemporary work that features older people in the belief that their lives are just as interesting and complex as any others across the age spectrum.

It is a company that illustrates the melting-pot nation that is modern Britain: ten actors with a director and creative team whose origins lie across the planet: in the far east, the middle east, Eastern Europe, India, Australia, USA, Canada and the Mediterranean as well as the United Kingdom and they have also acted all over. What does that make them?

Who Do We Think We Are? is a memory play built not from one person’s memory but that of each of them. But what is memory? What does it consist of? Can we trust it? What we have here is a sequence of more than 40 snatches of memory, a collage of incident, of personal moments that stretch back through the years for over a century, though it starts in the present.

It starts with a reminder of what memories may be: a look, a smell, a voice, a phrase, may be not first hand but an image in a family album, something someone told you. Is it true or a half-truth? Memory is a strange thing and some of it seems to come by osmosis as much as by things experienced or passed on my others.

I wasn’t around for the Great War or the 1929 Wall Street Crash but I grew up conscious of that carnage and the Great Depression as though awareness was passed on in my genes. Can one inherit experience or is this a matter of an unconscious absorption of information from others?

Who Do We Think We Are? begins with two people asking questions. First is Togo Igawa in Banbury speaking to his sister in Tokyo, though we don't hear his question. Next is New-York-born John Moraitis on a visit to his 99-year-old aunt on the Greek island of Ikaria. He is asking when her brother, his father, left the island and we go back to 1914.

For each of the company, there is a 1914 moment of parent or grandparent. Andrew Hawkin’s grandfather is trying to get a start as an actor two years before being in a trench on the Somme, Imola Gaspar's is leaving home to join the Austro-Hungarian army, Jasmina Daniel’s is a Captain in the Royal Fusiliers, Norma Cohen’s dad is watching George V and Queen Mary seeing off the troops in Liverpool as his grandfather takes a photograph, Trevor Allan Davies’s is parting from his young wife in Canada, Paul Humpoletz’s father, in Vienna, is hearing of the assassination in Sarajevo and in Ikaria a 13-year-old boy is holding back tears as he sets off for the New World to earn money for the family.

A century of history is now movingly traced through 41 scenes of personal incident, from WWI trenches to Woodstock, the Warsaw Ghetto to a Siberian prison camp, building British socialism to making a stand against Ceausescu’s totalitarian dictatorship, taking tea in Simla to riding the back of a Manta Ray or a careering through Italy on the back of a motorbike looking for a beautiful woman, getting news of the first atom bomb reaching ENSA in Bombay or seeing a father emerging from the ruins of Nagasaki—and so much more—this is constantly watchable.

There is happiness and horror, family problems and world events, things we all share and some very private. From little girl Anne Firbank, getting ready for her birthday and thrilled by a Maharajah’s present of a pony, to aged but still sprightly Ruth Posner, showing a Royal Free registrar a high kick when he gives her an Alzheimer’s test, this is a personal panorama of people’s lives.

Director Sue Lefton, designer Agnes Treplin and their team have ensured that it looks lovely and moves well whether presenting a vignette of history or an underwater world full of fishes. Projections by Gillian Tan, often featuring personal family photographs or film, help identify date and location and Sally Davies’s music makes a big contribution, beautifully played by Francesa Ter-Berg.

This is an ensemble work in which every performance is magnificent and as a whole a wonderful accomplishment. Don’t miss it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton