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!