After the success of his play Boudica at the Globe Theatre last year, 2018 is getting off to a good start for Tristan Bernays. His musical Teddy, which premiered at Southwark Playhouse in 2016 is soon to return to London for a 10-week run at the Vaults and his new play Old Fools is about to open at Southwark Playhouse. The writer took time off from his busy schedule to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates.
At first glance, a play that deals with Alzheimer’s Disease would seem to have limited appeal, but Bernays insists “the play is not about Alzheimer’s, it is about relationships and how difficult it is to keep a relationship going over several years, especially when it is eventually affected by illness”. He adds “it spans 40 or so years, playing around with memory and time jumping…it is an incredibly human experience and it is only an hour, leaving time for a drink in the bar afterwards”.
The play’s central characters are named Tom and Viv, so was this an intended reference to TS Eliot? Bernays laughs and protests “no, absolutely not, it was a complete coincidence. I was halfway through the play when it was pointed out to me, but, when you’ve named characters, it’s difficult to go back. They were in my head with those monosyllabic names and I stuck with them”.
The play is a two-hander, but, bearing in mind its title and the theme of dementia, it comes as a surprise to discover that two relatively young actors, Mark Arends and Frances Grey, have been cast in the premiere production. Bernays explains that casting decisions were not his: “my script gives the director [in this case Sharon Burrell] a blank sheet, with no stage directions or anything like that. The play spans many years and the actors play eight characters in all, so it is perfectly possible that a future production could be acted by 70-somethings”.
The writer is drawing from personal experience, his grandfather having suffered from Alzheimer’s. “I understand what it means when someone you know and love is, gradually, not there anymore,” he says. “The play includes some of my own family’s mythology, like stared jokes. I wrote it some time ago and then set it aside, as happens in this business, and, one day, Sharon contacted me and said ‘let’s do it’, so here we are”.
With his playwriting career blossoming, where does Bernays see himself going from here? “I trained as an actor but tried everything in theatre and quickly realised that I was more interested in other areas [including] lighting….and of course writing” he explains. “I still perform my one-man shows, such as Testament, which was at the Vault Festival recently, but I have another project in hand and I am focusing mainly on writing”.
With Bernays’ rapidly-increasing profile as a writer, we wait with interest to see what this promising young talent comes up with next.
Old Fools runs at Southwark Playhouse, London from 14 March to 7 April 2018