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It's never too late to learn, so I'm going back to uni

By Mary Kenny

The mammies and daddies are going shopping in preparation for the start of the new school term next week – and I'm getting my books together in preparation for my student induction later in September.

Yes, at my advanced age I have enrolled at a wonderful university to study for an MA. And been accepted. Don't we live in an enlightened age when oldsters are welcomed into the groves of academe as if they were promising young freshers.

Old age is a time of many regrets – the finest guide to elderly ruefulness is the current poetry of Clive James, "a sad man, sorrier than he can say" – which he publishes freely on the internet. (His poem Sentenced to Life is a moving and memorable expression of that.) And while you are alive, you can still do something about your regrets: express them, redeem or even change direction.

I've always regretted that I've not been better educated, although it was the lack of education that propelled me to keep trying.

So here I am with my preparatory books on Bertolt Brecht and Konstantin Stanislavsky, and the unusual performance theories of Antonin Artaud. My Master's degree is to be in Drama Studies, which is something I wanted to do since I was 16.

In the evening of your life, you often look back with bewilderment at all the wasted time. Why did I pfaff around for years doing all sorts of things that were pointless and ephemeral? Why didn't I do, when young, what I really wanted to do? Why does it take a lifetime to find oneself?

Part of the reason was that university didn't seem accessible back then. Of the girls in my class who did the Leaving Cert in 1961, I doubt that a third went on to third-level education. And being always the lower end of the bottom stream, I assumed that university was not for the likes of me. And to be honest, I did have an urgent need to earn my living.

Yet for decades, I didn't even know that you could study something like drama at university level, especially as a mature student. It was only a chance meeting with a kindly Kerry woman poet on a Dublin bus a few years ago which prompted the idea. "If you love drama, why not go back to university and take a degree?"

There were complications: of location and of logistics and of home responsibilities and of whether I could do it part-time (which at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, it turns out I could). University life today is much more flexible and accessible than it used to be. And they don't – mostly – scare you away, telling you you're too dim to enter their portals. There are exceptions. I was pronounced "academically mediocre" just a couple of years ago by an admissions tutor – an Irish woman and an alumnus of Trinity College Dublin, who was examining my first degree, also taken in mid-life. But in general, you get an encouraging welcome as a mature, or even very mature, applicant.

So my student induction in September is all terribly exciting, and if I survive the course, I shall eventually hold a Master's in directing drama for the theatre: possibly, this is a lofty goal which I may never reach. But it's not the goal that matters – it's the journey.

I haven't met my fellow-students yet, though we're beginning to be in touch by email, exchanging information about the plays we've seen and the ones we hope to see – and I have a bumper selection already lined up: Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, Enda Walsh's highly-praised Ballyturk at London's National Theatre, Julius Caesar at Shakespeare's Globe, and a fabulous trio of Ibsen productions, among many others. I remember reading The Wild Duck when I was a teenager – how fascinating to return to it now after all those years.

In November there's a week of fearfully intellectual German drama study in Berlin – what larks.

And I'm so looking forward to being with a group of people who share my stage-struck passions: the legendary director Peter Brook has written that the essence of theatre is "working as a group – sharing viewpoints" and I couldn't reach for a better definition of a rewarding experience.

Indeed, I have come to believe that a shared interest is one of the most important aspects of any relationship, from the collegial to the amorous.

A special project for our attentions will be studying the social and artistic context of the year 1965. I was there. And remember many of the theatrical events of that year, including an electrifying Glenda Jackson in Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade (later a film), set in a mental asylum. How piquant to find you have actually lived through the history you are researching – there is an advantage of the years.

I'm as happy as a sandgirl, now, curling up each night with my prep books on Meyerhold and Grotowski, and the relationship between dramaturgy and performance.

If you had a youthful dream you never followed through, it's never too late to start that journey. And sometimes you haven't done it before now, because this is the time that you were meant to do it, and you are at last ready.

Belfast Telegraph


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