I have been trying to start this review for roughly an hour. I am only setting down words now because I have to file today or risk making my editor sad (far worse than making her cross). You would have thought it would be easy to write a review of a work of physical theatre. I just need to tell you what I saw, and whether I thought it was any good.
So what did I see? As the lights slowly rise, they illuminate a large, windowed room – a recording studio – where an old woman lies in a coffin. Microphones tape her dying breaths. When they finally end, the other figures on stage bow their heads. The coffin is removed.
In the foreground, outside the recording studio, a woman thoughtfully tests the floor. Splashing noises follow her movements – so compelling are her movements, so surprising are the sound effects, that it takes several seconds to realise that the dripping, splashing, watery noises emanate from the recording studio, where another woman is washing a rag. But sound and effect combine with the inevitability of dream logic. As the rag is plunged into the tub of water in the recording studio, the woman in the foreground finds herself drowning on the floor, frantically kicking against an invisible sea.
As the lights brighten, the rest of the stage is revealed: grey walls, a sad pot plant, a coffee machine we can already imagine being described as ‘tempestuous’, a variety of paintings and pictures on the wall. Amber Vandenhoeck’s set design has a frankly unnerving veracity; I am struck by a sense of déjà vu, convinced that I have been to this place before.
In an alcove are two frozen human figures: an old woman in a conservative blue suit, watching an almost naked man in the act of climbing into a coffin. Brandon Lagaert, dressed in a dark blue uniform, refers to the space, including the alcove, as a museum; he refers to Simon Versnel as his father; he refers to the old woman (Eurudike De Beul) as his mother, and she comes ‘to life’ though we think we know her to be dead, recognising her from the opening scene. He introduces her to a pregnant woman (Maria Carolina Vieira), his wife or finacée or girlfriend. The birth, De Beul tells them, will be difficult.
Two mothers, then, have been established. This is all the characterisation that is really necessary for the anarchic, surrealist, urgently emotional Mother (Moeder) to somersault its way into your hindbrain.
The seriousness of this thematic foundation-laying is undercut by Lagaert telling the ‘statue’ of the almost naked man that the museum is closing. The statue comes to life, collapses into the coffin, and gets dramatically tangled in some plastic sheeting. Eventually, the statue we now know to be a living person (Hun-Mok Jung) struggles free, gasps for air and snarls, “Fucking job.” It’s a perfect set-up for the mood of the piece. Throughout Mother, slapstick hilarity careens along with the disturbing and the deeply sad. The major ensemble sections combine all three, as the performers appear to be thrown around the stage by unseen forces, running on curled-over toes, flung into deep, aggressive backbends, literally flipping head over heels with no pretense at graceful, painless landings.
There is a narrative, of sorts. Lagaert and Vieira’s child never leaves her incubator; we see her as a seven year old girl, a young woman and an old woman, foetally curled and apparently incognizant. She is tended to by a permanently pregnant nurse (Yi-Chun Liu), whose artificially extended limbs make her coiling, serpent-like solos very eerie. Marie Gyselbrecht is having a physically charged affair with the coffee machine, seductively serenading it with a rendition of Billie Holliday’s ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’. Memories appear alongside hallucinations, with no clear differentiation between the two.
I have now been writing this review for over an hour, and I cannot tell you what the piece ‘means’ or what it intends, or even what exactly is happening. And yet, I am not frustrated by this lack of closure. Mother is presented with such confidence, such deep feeling, and such a cohesive aesthetic that it has the quality of a lucid dream. The entire piece appears to be dug out of a subconscious mind, fully formed, full of questions. At what point in the proceedings does De Beul die, and why does she sing so hauntingly? Why does Versnel spend the course of the piece carefully replacing all the hung paintings with pictures of himself as a young man? Why does the sketch of a heart sometimes bleed? It doesn’t matter. Peeping Tom’s creation is violent, hilarious, heartbreaking. It is art in its purest state, taking the incoherent matter of lived experience and turning it into something on the edge of the understandable.
Mother was on at the Barbican from 24th to 27th January, 2018. For more info on London International Mime Festival, visit http://mimelondon.com/