For those of you who saw The Father at The Fugard last year, you’ll have a fair idea of that play’s companion piece, The Mother, in terms of structure and point of view. Both works, written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated into English by Christopher Hampton, explore the nuances of mental illness.
Told through the eyes of the protagonists, these works seek to leave their audience with a closer understanding of these characters’ conditions. In The Father, the focus of the story was dementia, while The Mother looks at depression. And if you thought the first was both moving and tragic, then you ain’t seen nothing yet, my friends!
The Mother‘s titular character, Anne (TV-veteran Anna-Mart van der Merwe), is a housewife who has seen her children grow up, leave home and proceed not to make much contact with her. Her husband Pierre (Graham Hopkins) seems to be chained to his office desk and always on business trips. Anne is suspicious of Pierre, hurling insults and accusations at him at numerous points during the play’s 80-odd-minute run. But, of course, we cannot too easily rely on Anne’s opinion as scenes are reenacted so the audience is able to understand and (attempt to) pick apart her psychological frailty.
Then there’s the matter of Anne’s kids. Her son, Nicolas (Sven Ruygrok), stops by for the night after a row with his girlfriend Élodie (Amy-Louise Wilson, who also starred in The Father). Upon his entrance, the audience witnesses Anne’s unhealthy connection to him. She mollycoddles him, insults his girlfriend at every opportunity and invites him to stay for an indefinite period of time. He has clearly had his fill of his mother’s incessant smothering, and tensions mount when Élodie shows up.
Florian Zeller’s plays may be greatly similar on a thematic level, but there are more subtle elements that connect them. Each protagonist has a daughter who is spoken of but unseen and often confused with another character (Elise in The Father; Sara in The Mother). In terms of set design, the fact that Birrie Le Roux was assisted by Rocco Pool (set designer for The Father) is immediately apparent. The Mother‘s décor consists of background panels that recall the moving clouded screens in The Father, and both productions share the constant presence of a living room seat and a table or surface on which stands a bottle of red wine.
There is, however, a particularly riveting addition to the visual experience of The Mother. We are offered further insight into Anne’s inner torment thanks to a video in triptych played at certain moments on the set’s background panelling. It shows either Anne in a state of anguish or other characters as she sees them. It’s an effective addition of technical media that parallels in the disruptive and disjointed audio featured in The Father to reflect the mental decline of its protagonist André.
One notable aspect of both plays is how they depict conventional parental roles. In the same way that André is steadily deprived of his fatherly authority, Anne can no longer live out the satisfaction of being a source of domestic comfort. She is bored, lonely, abandoned and desperate. And the reason these feelings are conveyed so well in this production of The Mother is the truly outstanding work done by Anna-Mart van der Merwe. The play is particularly physical at certain points, and Anna-Mart effortlessly combines her voice, face and body to tell the story of her character’s breakdown.
Sven, Graham and Amy-Louise also give commendable performances as three equally indecipherable people. Are Nicolas and Pierre merely pushed to their limits or are they as respectively insensitive and unfaithful as Anne suspects? And what kind of girl is Élodie? She is, after all, introduced twice. In her first scene, she is cruel to Anne while in the second, she is polite.
Director Janice Honeyman, who everyone should know as the Queen of South African pantomime, has brought some beautiful and necessary insight onto the often misunderstood topics of depression and mental illness in general. And one aspect of The Mother which particularly intrigues, and which also (if I am right in my assumption) connects this play more directly to The Father, is that ‘Anne’ and ‘Pierre’ are the names of André’s daughter and son-in-law in the latter play. Could Florian Zeller be emphasising the fact the mental instability adopts various guises, can arise unexpectedly and cannot be read too simply? Like these two plays, it is complex, painful to experience, and in need of genuine attention and understanding.
When Tuesday 14 February – Saturday 4 March at 8 pm
Where The Fugard Theatre, Corner of Harrington Street and Caledon Street, District Six
Cost R130 – R160 at Computicket
Contact +27 21 461 4554, [email protected], thefugard.com
Photography Daniel Rutland Manners