Mastery of Florian Zeller in The Mother – best served with martinis

Living in the UK I am happily immersed in a modern (if still evolving) world where women can have successful careers as well as raise a family. We can choose what is important to us and what to invest our time, our lives, in. I had the privilege of seeing music goddess Adele perform a couple of weeks ago. 21 was the biggest selling album of the century – so to say she has a successful career would probably be a bit of an understatement. Yet she humbly described finding true and complete fulfilment in the birth of her son. She realised that was the feeling she had been waiting for and urged everyone to find their own fulfilment in whatever form it may be. The song Sweetest Devotion on 25 is written for him.

Florian Zeller’s The Mother explores what happens when that powerful, unconditional maternal love takes on a controlling, obsessive edge and becomes painfully all-consuming and self-destructive. Zeller effortlessly portrays the minutiae of family life to the fullest of its feelings and frustrations, with absolute conviction. The Mother is mesmerising, heart-breaking. The Father (written 2 years after, and having recently returned to the West End for a limited run) was the best play I saw in 2015 and the first to bring tears to my eyes. I’d somehow forgotten though that it left me feeling like I’d just surfaced from an intense experience of disorientating emotional intensity which left Josey and I drinking medicinal hot chocolate and reeling in second-hand human pain. We had martinis after The Mother. I was (again) full of tears and completely in awe of Gina McKee’s powerhouse performance. We saw The Father at the Wyndham’s, one of my favourite theatres. The Mother has West End transfer written all over it too, in my opinion, but it is beautiful in the intimacy of the Tricycle – where it is small enough to feel like you are there in the living room too as a silent observer, close enough to see the mum’s eyes glisten, the husband’s masked sob behind his tightly folded Guardian, the displacement of “that girl’s” “vulgar” cigarette into the half empty wine glass… the women’s magazines spraying across the room from the tray… the tight menace and mental disorder packed into the innocent until repeated phrase “anyway, good day?”

Husband and father Richard Clothier presents solutions to his wife Anne’s pain practically and dispassionately: a glass of water, the doctor, going out and picking up a hobby and some interests. Anne has her own medicines: wine, sleeping pills, and – most importantly – her elusive son, 25 year old “little darling” Nicholas. If the matter-of-fact approach to Anne’s mental health initially feels the unsympathetic product of an uncaring, suit-wearing husband callously carrying on with his secretary behind his wife’s back – in fact we realise his pain is just unspoken. Invited by Nicholas to say something he evidently has to confess or break to Anne, he instead leaves, one of many times, with his suitcase, and the scene dissolves. What was he going to say? What did Nicholas argue with his girlfriend about? All we have are Anne’s version of events, neither verified or denied. The scenes are played over, different and yet the same, and as we are plunged into darkness in between we wonder what is real and what is not and anyway – what does it matter?

On stage we see the confusion which can play out in the imagination of a mind moved by pain. We see Anne’s husband kissing a mystery girl right there in their living room, who morphs into the daughter we never meet, and also plays Nicholas’s girlfriend. Anne murders her husband in her dreams, and that’s when she feels “most rested”; in “real life” she tries to satisfy herself with little acts of revenge, like turning his alarm off to make him late for his train. We glimpse the brutality of her family members’ own suffering at the close of the play – a further emotional wedge of honesty to add to our experience of Anne’s manic anxious terror.

This instability is also what Zeller does brilliantly in his portrayal of dementia in The Father. There the protagonist exclaims “I feel as if I’m losing all my leaves”. Here Anne is desperately trying to recapture something she feels she too is losing – to pause time and evade change. She doesn’t want to move forward, go out and get hobbies on her own, because that would involve moving away from her self-defining role as mother for her boy and that is not something which she is ready to leave behind, despite the fact that he is now twenty five and lives away from home. When Anne dresses up in a red dress with her hair in a scrunchie she is strangely childish. As Nicholas’s girlfriend appears in an identical outfit Anne’s desire to have her time again is painfully suggested, as well as almost trying to oust Nicholas’s girlfriend in her jealousy. The happiest Anne remembers being is when she would make breakfast for Nicholas before school. She mutters she must do this, prepare his breakfast bowl, in case he gets up “really early”, and in the change of scenes in the darkness we hear children in a playground, a school bell. Anne is desperate for the familiarity and routine she knew when Nicholas was still a child and is scrabbling to find it in a world where her son is grown up with a girlfriend, drinks coffee instead of tea and has his own life to lead.

Anne says she “already lost” her husband, a long time ago, to those “little bitches”, and now she feels she is losing her son. What does she do, what does she mean, when Nicholas isn’t there to mother anymore? It is a pain and loss which feels honest and raw in its intensity. Anne’s life is tidying, shopping, wearing clothes loose like pjamas and tucking herself into the sofa with a blanket, burying the phone beneath the cushions, and waiting for it to ring. We see a mind suspended in the emotional pain of abandonment – in the portrayal of a husband who repeatedly leaves scene after scene for a seminar in Leicester and we get a sense of a man who is often away under the excuse of business, who might leave at any moment. This is stripped back and laid bare in the last scene, played out with both husband and son, where both rise to go and get the nurse as Anne wakes and she asks “don’t leave me on my own”. Anne bitterly explains in early scenes- she gave everything to her family, they use her up, drain her years, and now what is left, but absence? Is it possible to love someone too much? What if you do find complete fulfilment in one person and then that person leaves?

To end on a happy note I should mention that Zeller is funny too! The humour of The Mother though is more acerbic sarcasm and I can see little of the child-like playfulness which characterises much of The Father’s lighter moments. Already booked tickets to complete the Zeller hat trick – The Truth is showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th May. Looking forward to laughing at this one!

 

 

 

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Curiouser and curiouser: A certain Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

“Does that mean I can do anything?” 15 year old Christopher Boone (Siôn Daniel Young) asks his kindly teacher (Rebecca Lacey) in the closing words of the play. Having travelled to London on his own, achieved an A* at Maths A level  – surely now the world is Christopher’s oyster. Christopher goes to a “special needs” school (all the kids are “stupid”) he doesn’t like yellow and brown or being touched. His experience of and interaction with the world is strikingly beautiful at times, intensely stressful at others. But after all what is “normal” about his dad’s building anger and frustration, or his mum’s mysterious absence, or his elderly neighbour’s overeager approaches? Perhaps we all can read “curious” one way or another.

Adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has won 7 Olivier awards including Best Play in 2013. After opening in 2012 in the Apollo and moving to the Gielgud when the ceiling fell in, it has also transferred to Broadway. There is a fair amount of swearing, earning it an 11+ guidance rating.

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I read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time years ago and was intrigued to see how the National Theatre would capture its unique, unusual and painfully honest voice for the stage. In fact the stage is a key player and a story in itself – huge credit due to Bunny Christie for the innovative design. It is a black light-edged box which flashes and fizzles with Christopher’s feelings and interpretations. We flicker from one place to the next, flawlessly: projections create houses on Christopher’s street in Swindon, the back wall becomes an escalator on the Underground; we are entirely plunged into dingy darkness lit only by Christopher’s torch, as he searches for his book under his dad’s bed. My personal favourite moments are the light shows: the rain like showers of light (Christopher likes watching the rain, as it makes him think about how all the world is connected); and the completed train set which closes the first half with trees, bridges, and wonderfully, a miniature Big Ben and London Eye.

Christopher is particularly comical in his repetition of others’ accents and pronunciations, and in his interpretation of metaphors (which are just lies, essentially, and confusing). Whilst Christopher always tells the truth, he collides with a parent-led, adult world which is altogether less honest and straightforward. Keen to figure out who murdered Mrs Shears’ dog, Wellington, Christopher moves door to door, methodically investigating the crime with a clipboard and set of questions. When things stray from these straight lines Christopher’s world as he knows it is shattered and confusion and pain reign. The deep emotional stress is most painfully felt in Christopher’s furious construction of the train set snaking across stage, taking train tracks from spaces concealed in the stage walls as a letter from his mother is read out. The stage reads chaos as an explosion of letters falls.

When Christopher is drawing on the stage floor  (another surface for doodles, like the walls) I have a strange sensation things might start sliding off the stage altogether, upended as they are when Christopher floats through space as an astronaut above earth and amongst the stars. With his pet rat Toby, of course. Pets are crucial to Curious, worth jumping on to the tube tracks for in fact. Indeed by far the most appreciative audible reaction from the audience goes to the tiny, adorable golden Labrador puppy which fleetingly appears on stage.

Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher, acts as narrator and structures the story – the premise being that she has suggested to Christopher that they turn his story in to a play.  This idea is introduced in the second half, and there is a little fun had with directing (“shout at him louder”) and the promise Christopher can explain the answer to his first A level maths question after the play has finished. He actually does, too. Simon Stephens background as a teacher certainly comes to the fore. Stephens has explained he wanted the play to be about “the gesture of teaching” – something he believes theatre and education share (interview here: http://www.curiousonstage.com/blog/simon-stephens-on-teaching/) . Curious is now a GCSE set text so will no doubt prove a useful extra- curricular trip for school crowds, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening experience for the rest of us. Perhaps the overwhelming exhaustion Christopher experiences in noticing every little detail as he tries to travel on the roaring tube might prompt us to look up from our phones every once in a while and notice the world going on around us. We might see something remarkable.

Office chairs turned trees: a modern day pastoral

Polly Findlay’s production brings As You Like It back to the National Theatre after a 36 year long absence. As one of the best plays I’ve seen at the National in the past couple of years, it was worth the wait. Highlights include Mark Benton as Touchstone, Paul Chahidi as Jaques, Patsy Ferran as Celia, and of course Rosalie Craig as the heroine, Rosalind.

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We open in a modern office, with workers suited in yellow, pink, grey, orange jackets wielding mysterious silver padded briefcases. The soon to be forest sees screensavers of green forests on computer monitors and bonsais on working desks. In fact this is the closest to foliage we get as tables, chairs, desk lamps spectacularly dismantle to become the bowers of the forest. The movement from the office setting to the Forest of Arden feels not like exile but escape. We retreat from life in the city – watching workers snatch a sandwich in a few moments away from the repetitive motion of industrious activity – to a more leisurely pastoral life; where everything is turned on its head (not just the furniture). Rosalind is disguised as a man, Celia is Aliena, Touchstone is dressed in a sparkly woman’s coat and sporting a couple of floral tote bags. We don’t escape very far, admittedly. The romance of the forest is kept shallow deep with pastoral piss-taking. Lime green post-its shower down for Orlando to attach his verses of ardour to chair legs; whilst the sheep are cast members on all fours, dressed in woolly cream jumpers and with comical chewing faces. The attention to detail is present throughout and is a constant source of pleasure particularly in the scene full of weddings, which delights with 50s swing dresses and paper forest flowers in jewel colours.

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Humorous stage directions give fresh meaning to the bard’s words on more than one occasion. The wrestling ring springing up in the midst of the office for Orlando’s first time on stage reminds me of dwarf tossing in The Wolf of Wall Street. And it seems the awkward encounter of seeing an acquaintance in the street happens too in the forest – Jaques expresses perfectly the strained exaggerated acknowledgement in a beautifully comical series of facial expressions, followed up with the golden line: “let’s meet as little as we can”.

Following the Duke’s angry words casting out Rosalind, as the two girls stand dressed in pjs and fluffy socks it feels like we are watching best friends at a sleepover planning to leave home and start up independent lives. Rosalind transforms: at first curled up on the floor sobbing in despair, she later flits off the stage with the promise of excitement and adventure ahead. There is perhaps a choice to interpret what happens to us and make of it what we will, making much of Celia’s lines “now go we in content/ To liberty and not to banishment” – not to mention the title of the play itself, as you like it. It is this strong healing familial relationship between Rosalind and Celia, and the portrayal of women who are funny and beautiful and independent which is empowering to watch. Rosalind has more lines than any other in the play. She demands courtship from her beloved, organises not just her own but everyone else’s wedding, delivers the epilogue and in a brilliant bit of choreography dips Orlando in their wedding dance. Rosalind makes her entrance as a woman once more in the final scene, reminding me that the end of the play, in its union of the handful of relationships and restoration of the land to the banished Duke, is in fact very much the beginning – and each new moment of time presented to us a fresh birth of possibility and opportunity to shape as we wish.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;