House Mother Normal, B.S. Johnson’s 1971 experimental novel, must make seductive reading for a director in search of adaption material in 2021. Set in a nursing home, nine characters in varying states of cognitive and physical decline are each given twenty-one pages to experience the events of the same afternoon. Nine synchronous monologues, ready to go. Nine characters who are, as New Perspectives’ Artistic Director, Jack McNamara, puts it, ‘trapped in one situation, staring into a kind of void that each sees differently’. If your relevance counter isn’t already pinging, let me draw your attention to the lyrics of the song the residents are forced to recite by their sinister nurse:
The most important thing to do
is stay alive and see it through.
No matter if the future’s dim
just keep straight on and trust in him
for he knows best and brings good cheer.
Oh lucky us that we are here.
While an in-person installation will be available to visit later in May, mine was an online experience. The screen is divided into nine segments, with the eight residents and their ‘house mother’ staring out and occasionally interacting with one another, like a geriatric Brady Bunch. In Johnson’s novel, every monologue is presented whole, but structured so that the same page of each takes place in the same moment in time, Ivy’s seventh page treating the same events as Ron’s, etc. This form allows the characters to vie for the reader’s attention, encouraging them to flip back and forth to catch both sides of an interaction, or provide context to an event. Director Tim Crouch has chosen to serve Johnson’s intention by presenting all nine monologues at the same time, creating, in his words, an ‘assembly of voices – a chorus of memories and meditations, cruelties and longings’.
The immediate effect of this choice, in the digital version, is to create a kind of miserable white noise machine. The complaints and contemplations of the residents wash over you, not gently, but as a deluge in which you will eventually drown. It takes focus to pick out strands of thought, many of which concern base needs, or are wanderings down cul-de-sacs of reminiscence.
Perhaps this feeling, an overstimulation by contextless information, provides insight into the mind of an individual suffering from declining brain function. Like in Florian Zeller’s play, The Father, it’s empathy by way of preview, a trial run serving as a warning of what may come. Personally, as my focus shifted desperately between incoherent appeals to my hunger and lust, each stimulus offering nothing but another devastating lack of resolution, I began to feel as if I was in the death throes of comprehension, a terminal lack of concentration brought on by a year spent under the full blast of the attention economy. Possibly that’s an interpretation recognisable only to those who share a bed with their phones every night.
Some of the fun of interpretation is dampened by the sound mix. Crouch has taken on the job of discernment for us, raising the volume on key pieces of text while others are sacrificed to blend into the din. It’s a shame to limit our freedom of meaning-making, but I suspect the alternative would have been a piece that was truly incomprehensible. Anyway, if it’s completism you desire, I recommend the excellent Audible production of the novel.
The ensemble are haunting. Their sustained gaze accusatory, a mournful rebuke from those left behind. They relive memories vividly, phrases endlessly repeated are spoken as fresh observations, while bleak humour is found in their obsession with their own failing bodies – it’s easy to disappear up your own arse when that arse is blighted with haemorrhoids. As the lens over reality takes on increasingly surreal shades, Amelda Brown’s House Mother maintains a disturbing calm. She presents her cruel and bizarre behaviour as matter of fact, a natural alleviation of the pressure built up from overseeing a feckless rabble. By the end of the piece, in a meta flourish from Johnson, she will have found a framework that relieves her of all responsibility for her actions. House Mother Normal affords the viewer no such relief.
House Mother Normal is available to watch as an online installation until 31 May, or in-person at Dukes Lane, Brighton from 17-31 May. More info here.