BWW Review: THE MOTHER, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre
It was, appropriately, my mother who introduced me to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, whose stories appealed to her sense of the macabre. But I recall the colour plate illustrations more than the narratives - always dark and full of threat, with The Snow Queen a particularly nightmarish vision.
It was that visual dimension that appealed to choreographer, Arthur Pita, on picking up an illustrated version of Andersen's The Story of a Mother. He imagined it as a piece of dance theatre - and he presents it now.
We open on a baby crying and a mother attempting to comfort the poor thing. It's a sound every parent can recall, usually the product of croup or chickenpox, but we note the little bedroom's furniture and we suspect we're in the past, the time before mass vaccination programmes eradicated the real killers in the Developed World.
She's not too well either - if your kid's illness doesn't get you, the stress does - and, offered a slug of medicine by a doctor, she takes it and drifts off... and he whisks away the baby. Stripped of his white coat, the would-be saviour is revealed as Death, out to claim another tiny soul - have a look in a country graveyard and see how many he took in Andersen's time.
Desperate, the Mother pursues Death, only to meet a series of malevolent guides who demand everything she has, stripping her of her very humanity, as she pleads for her child's life.
Natalia Osipova is such an expressive dancer, so gifted a communicator, that we see all this and feel her terrible pain - because which parent wouldn't do what she does, and suffer accordingly? Drenched in blood, eyeless, hysterical, Osipova never loses control of the narrative, the classical ballerina breaking through the freedom of Pita's contemporary dance to provide structure and simplicity in the chaos. There's nothing remotely "difficult" about this piece.
Jonathan Goddard takes on all the other roles: a sinister babushka; a shadowy Death; a surely ill-advised lover; and many more. He invests each role with Andersen's signature undercurrent of dread, each character exacting an horrific price for their dubious assistance.
The dancers' storytelling gets tremendous support from Frank Moon and Dave Price's percussion heavy music - hearts pounding, heads spinning - and from Yann Seabra's cottage set, on a revolve that allows for both seamless transitions and the off-centred world every fairytale creates.
The end is both shocking and dreadful - we know how the mother got there after all.
In a time in which the anti-science of fanatics critical of vaccination programmes is on the march and the promoters of unsafe abortions are gaining ground in the USA, The Mother has a resonance beyond its immediate subject matter. Pita, Osipova and Goddard tell their tale of the appalling impact the loss of a child can have on a mother with a piercing clarity and an unflinching commitment - it's a warning that should be heeded.
Photo Mikah Smillie