It’s not always possible to see every play. Plays are incomplete on the page but they also have a separate and just as important existence there. This initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 48: Florian Zeller’s The Mother (2010).
First seen in the UK in 2015 in a translation by Christopher Hampton, The Mother is a companion play to the award winning The Father. I saw The Father at the Birmingham Rep in May after Kenneth Cranham won the Olivier Award for Best Actor for playing Andre, the father of the title who is rapidly losing his mind to dementia. It finds the perfect form to reflect its subject matter, compelling the audience to succumb to the same spiralling confusion as Andre until we are no longer certain which character is which or where they are.
The Mother takes on a familiar form to convey a mother’s loss of self as her son is no longer living at home and her husband may be cheating on her. It sometimes reads that her desperation could also be attributed to Alzheimer’s disease as in The Father but the casting of a younger actress for Anne, the mother, in the Ustinov Bath and Tricycle production (Gina McKee) puts that issue aside and instead places more of an emphasis on the role of a mother. What does it mean, and what is her place once those duties are over, that is, if they do become obsolete?
Scenes play out and then often repeat but with alternate scenarios and endings. The play starts with Pierre about to go off to a seminar in Dijon, but Anne expects he’s having an affair, something which he doesn’t exactly deny to her. Anne is lonely, on pills and depressed. At one moment, she is complaining that their son rarely visits or never calls, thinking that his new girlfriend Elodie is driving him away, but then he comes down for breakfast having seemingly spent the night with them. Later on, Elodie (or The Girl) turns up and stubs her cigarette out on the floor, something which foreshadows a later bit where Anne is suffocated in bed. The play is elliptical and constantly makes you second guess the characters and the nature of reality in the play: is The Girl really Nicholas’ girlfriend or is she a nurse or is she Pierre’s lover?
The Mother is an ultimately poignant play especially when she reflects on missing the days when she made her son breakfast and walked him to school. Her last line, ‘What was all that for?’, certainly strikes a chord but I can’t help but feel it’s a less universal play than The Father. I guess it’s easier to write that as a man but The Mother deals with a different type of loss of self than The Father even though it’s just as (perhaps more so?) nightmarish.
I feel where The Father succeeded more was also more clearly evoking a stronger sense of place which could then be twisted and played with. When I saw James MacDonald’s production, a lot of effort had gone into Miriam Buether’s set to create a definite, concrete and detailed sense of space: three walls, a ceiling, furniture, a peep of the lampshade hanging in the hallway, a glance of the kitchen including a pedal bin in the corner. It gave the effect that we could familiarise ourselves with a flat, in this case belonging to Andre. In a later scene, we are simultaneously in ‘the same room and a different room’. As the scenes go on, more and more furniture moves and eventually vanishes. There were some vases on the bookshelf that I was expecting to switch around which I was keeping an eye on. A few scenes later, I missed that (even if the vases were in the same place) that a painting and lamp had gone! It created a sense of the uncanny, highlighted more by the speed of the changes and the glitches in the classical music between scenes. Space is not as specified in The Mother. In Laurence Boswell’s production at least, it looks as though the whole room was very minimalist and white, perhaps as empty and cold as Anne feels her life has become.
Both plays are very clever even if The Father is more original. There are echoes of Pinter and, inevitably I suppose, Yasmina Reza, and I look forward to seeing more of Zeller’s work.