BWW Review: Pinteresque THE MOTHER an Utterly Arresting Ordeal on The Fugard Studio Stage

BWW Review: Pinteresque THE MOTHER an Utterly Arresting Ordeal on The Fugard Studio Stage
Anna-Mart van der Merwe in THE MOTHER
Photo credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

"Time heals everything," they say. They also say, "Time's a killer." In THE MOTHER, Anne spends her days contemplating 25 years of marriage and motherhood. A quarter century of experiences seems to have flown by, while the experience of a day drags on she plays out and replays particular moments through the filter of her mind. Anne spends her time sifting through clues that point to an affair between her husband, Pierre, and another woman. Thoughts about her son, Nicolas, and his girlfriend, Élodie, percolate through her consciousness, leaching out everything except the obvious jealousy she feels towards their relationship. That jealousy transforms into unbridled Jocastian glee when Nicolas arrives back home one night, having split up with Élodie. From thereon out, Anne's isolation, her anti-depressants, an endless stream of wine and an ostensibly sexy red dress and heels send her spiralling towards a climax that encapsulates the essence of the Pinteresque. It is utterly arresting.

Following the South African premiere of Florian Zeller's THE FATHER last year, the same playwright's companion piece, THE MOTHER, made its bow last week at The Fugard Studio. In Christopher Hampton's translation, THE MOTHER retains the French sensibility with which its creator endowed it. There is a something of the grotesque in the way that Zeller teases humour out of this macabre family drama, tempering its characteristically French grimace of a grin with the same impression of futility that permeates Harold Pinter's plays. Zeller pushes that sense of senselessness right through to the final curtain, leaving the assemblage of meaning in the hands of its audience.

BWW Review: Pinteresque THE MOTHER an Utterly Arresting Ordeal on The Fugard Studio Stage
Anna-Mart van der Merwe and
Sven Ruygrok in THE MOTHER
Photo credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

It is interesting to note that another recent play dealing with mental health, last year's THE INCONVENIENCE OF WINGS by Lara Foot, showed the influence of Pinter's approach. Does this commonality signal something to us about our contemporary attitudes towards conditions such as bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression? Pinter himself once remarked that his work was about 'the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,' an off-the-cuff comment he later regretted when it was taken up seriously by theatre columnists and critics. And yet, with many mental conditions originating in the home - both THE MOTHER and THE INCONVENIENCE OF WINGS, for example, are inextricably linked with an upper-middle-class domesticity - is that not precisely what we see here?

In her direction of THE MOTHER, Janice Honeyman plays quite strongly into the weightier resonances of Zeller's writing. While, perhaps, some of the more acerbic one-liners are engulfed by this approach, it makes for an absorbing ordeal on the whole. There are some particularly thrilling sequences along the way. Her staging of a dance that Anne forces onto Nicolas midway through the play, for instance, is electrifying - as horrific as Nora dancing the tarantella in A DOLL'S HOUSE. Both of these women are dancing for their lives and Honeyman, knowing that Anne has no door to slam behind her, uses this scene as an anchor for her production. She has Anna-Mart van der Merwe's Anne dancing long before that scene, choreographing her body through the stage space from the opening moments of the piece.

Van der Merwe's intellectual, emotional and physical precision in her performance of Anne is incredible. She transforms Zeller's psychological study into a force of nature, a catastrophe that overwhelms everything in her wake - including herself. What Van der Merwe achieves on the small stage of The Fugard Studio is powerful and tragic.

BWW Review: Pinteresque THE MOTHER an Utterly Arresting Ordeal on The Fugard Studio Stage
Graham Hopkins in THE MOTHER
Photo credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

Graham Hopkins, who plays Pierre, is a fantastic foil for Van der Merwe. Playing Pierre as controlled as Anne is volatile, Hopkins delivers a visceral sketch of a husband who does not know what to do who is also a man who knows what he wants to do.

As Nicolas, Sven Ruygrok alternates between the charms that Anne sees as representing her son's totality and a series of reactions of which only the audience and other characters seem to be aware. Ruygrok's interactions with Van der Merwe and Amy-Louise Wilson, who plays Élodie, capture well the casual misogyny into which Nicolas has been socialised, his stares of disbelief or wonder reducing both women to objects of his gaze. The observation of this all too common behavioural trend is an astute one on Zeller's part, and he articulates it in some subtle and sophisticated playwriting.

Wilson herself is given a range of tantalising scenes to perform opposite and alongside her three co-stars. Essentially a construct of the other characters' points of view whenever she appears, the true Élodie is elusive and Wilson plays each of her tonally contrasting scenes with relish.

The aesthetic of the environment in which the play is staged is sophisticated and sleek. The scenic design, created by set designer Birrie le Roux and associate set designer Rocco Poole, sharply contrasts the solid metal framework that dominates the set and the hard glass of a wall-size mirror with the soft curtaining and upholstery that decorate Anne's psychological living room. Video projections of the characters dance off of both flat and rippled surfaces, shifting as neatly as the text itself does under Mannie Manim's lighting. Some gut-stirring aural cues underscore the action in Nicolaas van Reenen's sound design and music composition for the production.

BWW Review: Pinteresque THE MOTHER an Utterly Arresting Ordeal on The Fugard Studio Stage
Amy-Louise Wilson in THE MOTHER
Photo credit: Daniel Rutland Manners

Looking to THE MOTHER for answers on its themes is in many ways as futile as attempting to work out definitively which events are real and which Anne perceives as being real. Zeller's play points to the difficulties of trying to understand what is going on in other people's minds. We can make overtures of empathy, but can we ever achieve more than a degree of that noblest of all human connections? Maybe not, but plays like THE MOTHER can help us widen our angle of incidence when we reach out to other people - an approach that might allow us greater flexibility and, consequently, greater compassion.

THE MOTHER runs at the Fugard Studio Theatre until 4 March 2017, on Tuesdays to Saturdays at 20:00 with a 16:00 matinee on Saturdays. The Fugard Theatre is situated in the heart of District Six, on the corner of Harrington and Caledon Streets, Cape Town. Tickets cost R130-R160 and can be booked online at Computicket, by phone on 0861 915 8000 or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. Bookings can also be made at the Fugard Theatre's box office on 021 461 4554.

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