CATHERINE DOWNES reflects on her role as Helena in Last Legs, the fears of facing life in a retirement village, and the unexpected fulfillment she finds there.
“I’m playing Helena, who’s just arrived at The Cambridge. She fell in love with her lecturer when she was in her early twenties – he was 15 years older than her, really charismatic. Now, at this end of life that age gap takes on a very different hue. Now she’s in her middle sixties and he’s 80 and I think she’s really freaking out and doesn’t know what to do. As Helena says, lecturers bonking students was rife in the 70s, and if you married someone or struck up a relationship with someone when you were young and he was in his prime, it seemed very glamorous, but now he’s teetering on senility and she’s still fit and what does she do with that? I think my character panics and thinks, “he’s going to have a stroke! I don’t know how to handle it” and so she runs for cover and books them into this retirement village, and then gets there and really freaks out. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my days in a retirement village!” I think he’s plumbed quite a common story for a lot of baby boomers.
It is kind of freaky playing a character in a retirement village because Helena, my character, is the same age as me and I can put myself in that situation. I think it could be really depressing or frightening, because suddenly the end of your life is looming much more closely at you; this is how you’re going to end your life. The other characters are saying “the end of your days” and she’s going “crikey, is this the end of my days? Is this what’s happened? I’ve potentially shortened my own life by marrying into age, I’ve put myself into this home and I don’t want to be here.” But of course as another one of Roger’s characters says, there are plenty of things to do in a retirement village.
To start Helena doesn’t want to have a bar of it, but then the tide turns and she actually does find she becomes possibly the most fulfilled she’s ever been in her life at this retirement village. She picks up an interest – that she’d sneered at other people for doing – and then that hobby turns into a passion. It becomes her whole raison d’être and she has a really full, rich life, which is completely unexpected for her. That’s one of the powers of this play is that it’s actually a play about unexpected redemption and fulfillment. Just when you think your days are numbered or your days are over, there’s this whole other lease of life, and that’s why it’s called Last Legs. Because there’s life! Just when you think it’s all finished, there’s a whole new chapter.
I think audiences will enjoy the recognition. We look at the enormous popularity of Retirement Villages and reaching that ‘Golden Age’, you get your Gold Card and it’s all fabulous! You get your free ride on the Waiheke Ferry, but be careful what you wish for, because you’re also getting older and the people around you are getting older. So it’s recognition – not just of yourself, but of a lot of people around you. That is the aspect that Roger’s so good at, is really holding up the topical mirror, and he’s done it again in Last Legs.”