The Mother – Florian Zeller

I will just do a quick introduction before I put the article below. I am letting people do some guest blogging for my site which is what this review is. It was written by a good friend of mine who is a very talented writer. Credit below.

About two months ago I had the privilege to see this fantastic play, written by Florian Zeller and directed by Laurence Boswell. It is a modern and disjointed play that covers the protagonist’s empty nest syndrome. In everyday terms, empty nest syndrome is exactly like it sounds –her children have flown the nest. The play focuses on the eponymous mother and how her reality is distorted by mental illness.

Yes, it is one of those plays that’s designed to be intellectual, but if you can get over the initial adjustment from your “switch off brain and stare at telly” mode, you’ll find that it is far from hard work -although if you don’t pay attention you could be forgiven for not knowing what’s going on. And here’s why. The narrative of the play is constructed to show the audience everything the mother sees and hears, whether they be the voices of her family or the ones in her head. The scenes are always repeated once with different reactions triggered in each. But you don’t get to find out which ones are real -you never do. That’s the whole point. The audience is just like the mother, unable to tell which alternate reality actually happened.

You are enveloped in the mental illness with her, so you trust the other characters just as much as she does… which isn’t much. It’s hardly surprising, with a husband that’s caring and passionate one moment and going on “business trips” with a suspected other younger woman the next. All the while the play remains utterly British; the “we don’t talk about our feelings past a cursory ‘good day?’” mind-set is stiflingly clear. The blank spaces between the action are sprinkled with half-hearted neglect: much like the enthusiasm of fallen soufflé.

I guess you could say it’s one of those plays that works with silences as much as it does with words –which is a maddening description, I know. I’ll give an example. In the emptily white living room, the mother’s behaviour is odd to say the least. She displays a myriad of symptoms; one particularly that shows, not only mental illness, but specific fears as well. She hides the telephone under some scatter cushions. Aside from a strange penchant for the princess and the pea, it’s not that remarkable. What is remarkable however, is that the cushions are specifically stacked on top of one another and have to stay that way. The mother repeatedly puts the structure back together and experiences anxiety whenever her nest is disturbed. The compulsive behaviour is added to by furtive stares at the phone. It is revealed later on that the mother is waiting for her son to call for Mother’s Day, and once you know this, the phone is given all the more meaning.

It sounds all pretty negative, but I have to say the cast performed it magnificently. The protagonist, played by Gina McKee is at one alienating and pitiable. What surprised me was the depth of character given to the husband. His character varies: at times he’s a coaxingly concerned husband, who’s been driven to his wit’s end by a woman he clearly loves. At other times, he’s a callously suave businessman whose only concern is jetting off with the younger woman, thus abandoning the mother as well. Due to the nature of the play you can’t know what is real but because of the excellent standard of acting, all the versions of him are real to some extent. Richard Clothier’s best moment is right at the end of the play, where, without spoiling the play, his reading the paper is more like the audience reading his inner turmoil.

The play is without a doubt, incredibly complex. In one of a series of Freudian slips which would feature in a psychologist’s wet dream, the son appears with his girlfriend… who is also the actress who plays his sister… who is also wearing the same outfit as his mother. And that’s only one example! But for the most part, you don’t have to engage in the deep psychological elements if you don’t want to. There was more than one tearful eye in the audience who connected deeply with the play on an emotional level. If you take on the essence of both however, I think is the best way to enjoy it. But I won’t dictate to you on how you should watch the play. Only that it’s worth your while to do so.


Blog Credit: Joanna Nissel

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