What is narrative, that’s Florian Zeller’s challenge, and what is The Mother‘s delusion. She’s clearly in the middle of some kind of breakdown. Whether that’s induced by her empty nest, or whether it’s an instability that’s always been present, latent, is unclear. But Zeller knows the power he has as the writer. He can present a scene, say that it’s the story and then reveal that it’s not.
Often it is an exercise in writing, and as such it is difficult to sympathise with the characters. There is no certainty that what we are seeing is real, so how can we grow attached to these people? Zeller keeps us at arms length, pushes us away. The charitable interpretation is that people with depression or psychosis are self-isolating. Reduced inhibitions allow unfiltered opinions to emerge, and it is difficult to be around people who are constantly being unkind. Difficult to be around people who are constantly being honest.
Even if her performance doesn’t consume her, doesn’t turn her into a character, a mother, someone to love and hate, even if she reduces ‘Mother’ to an essence and an archetype, still there are astonishing details in McKee’s performance. The way she rubs her belly when she talks to her son. And her compulsion always to clear up the clutter around her. Physically, a lot of her time on stage consists of bringing out a tray of breakfast things (coffee, cups, jugs and jugs and jugs), then taking them off the tray and passing them around, and then collecting them and putting them back on the tray, then returning them to the kitchen.
The memory she keeps going back to is making breakfast for her son. She’s a housewife, whose existence was for her children for so many years. Now she is obsolete. Her mind – and, presumably, much of what we’re seeing is her imagination or hallucination through the warped lens of her mind, rather than straightforward narrative – can’t break away from habits forged over years. Drinks wine, sleeps, takes pills, sleeps drinks wine.
She suits this space and looks like a natural part of it. Her white linens match the white walls and white furniture. The husband doesn’t. He is a lump of darkness in his suit. His presence in this space of pure light is an infection.
There are no corners. None of the walls touch. They just float. Like an abstract sculpture, like flat water features in garden centres. Strong light comes from the cracks, the bits that don’t touch. It’s an empty living room. Odd bits of clutter intrude on the blank space. Bag of cheese nibbles. Pink mug. Design and direction are strong conceptual complements to the play’s main theme: what fractures, intrudes on normality? On banality?
Frustration seems to infiltrate every part of the Mother’s life. What can she do to make today different, even just a bit? Hey, I’ll put some brightly coloured socks on today. Hey, today I’ll buy a dress. Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll see someone else in her bright red dress and want to be like her, but my nerve will fail and I’ll continue to repeat the same cycles of boredom and banality that have stood me in dreary stead for the whole of my life so far.
For McKee, as for most, life can seem like a series of accruals and abandonments. Make friends, lose touch, repeat. Have child, rear child, let child leave. A fascinating and gripping exercise. No heart. But maybe there doesn’t need to be. If this is all from the perspective of the mother, taking pills that dull her ability to feel, then how can there be any heart? But perspectives are all skewed. Sometimes it seems as if we are seeing it through her eyes, sometimes it seems as if we’re observing her through someone else’s. There is no reconciliation there. No one takes charge of the narrative.
No one is in control.
The Mother is on until 12th March 2016. Click here for tickets.