Noni Hazlehurst is a magnificent actress and she gives a bravura performance as Christie, a homeless alcoholic bag woman who lives a pointless existence day to day, lost in memories of one part of her life that ended tragically. It is flawless acting and the success of the 75-minute work rests solely on Hazlehurst’s performance. You can almost smell her, and you can certainly see the ingrained dirt on her feet and hands. Her physical performance is as strong as her interpretation of the text. Every shrug, every move of the fingers behind her, as if pushing away the past she has no choice but to remember, is credible. She commands the stage whilst shrinking from it… no mean feat for any actress. It is, as many critics have noted, “the performance of a lifetime”.
Mother explores the themes of alienation and judgement, of being an outsider, even in your own life – of talking to trees, birds, walls, anything that will listen, in an alcohol induced haze. It’s also about self-judgement and coming to terms with who you are. Acceptance is hard for all of us. It is full of pathos and should be a highly emotionally charged experience for the audience. It should be - I waited for the tears, for the lump in my throat - I’m a sook at theatre) but they didn’t come. I admired the performance, but I wasn’t immersed in the life of Christie, through no fault of Ms Hazlehurst’s.
Daniel Keene is one of our finest playwrights and he wrote the play especially for the actress. His storytelling and use of language are exemplary, however one can’t help but feel that this script needed more thought to avoid it turning into “pick-a-cliché”. The 75 minutes of the play is involved entirely in the 18months – 2 years - of her marriage and early motherhood some 50 years beforehand. The huge revelation is foreshadowed within the first five minutes so there are no surprises, and there are no sub-textual moments for us to create a fuller story. Where has she been in the intervening 50 years? Was there ever a chance for redemption that she missed? Although the actress plays against the stereotype – the text paints her as a victim. I didn’t understand any more about Christie in the last five minutes than I had in the first five (there’s no sense that Christie understands herself), and a lesser actress might well have meant that I didn’t last the distance. Perhaps it was intentional that there be no “journey” for the character or the audience. If so, that’s a pity, because without understanding (in itself a journey) there can be no growth.
We “discover” Christie on stage as we take our seats. She does not acknowledge us in any way shape or form, ergo, it’s director Matt Scholten’s choice that we do not exist; that Christie is unaware of us and is talking to the incessant seagulls and traffic that pass. It’s a valid choice but it doesn’t hold for 75 minutes and one can’t help but wonder if the play would have had more emotional impact if we, the audience, were directly confronted in a more inclusive style. It’s the old “objective/subjective” argument in all storytelling. There is a lot of WHAT, and very little of WHY in the text, and Scholten never explores that option.
Kat Chan’s set, costume and props are beautifully balanced without being chaotic. Tom Willis’ lighting and Darius Kedros’ excellent soundscape provide location changes in a play that doesn’t require them. It’s good work from all involved, but it left me unsatisfied.
Mother is a play that should tear at your guts and your heart and make you want to approach the next homeless person you see and say, “tell me your story”. It doesn’t – it settles for being good theatre when it might have been breath-takingly great.