It is important to approach The Mother with its male counterpart, The Father, in mind. French playwright Florian Zeller’s two works share many similarities, perhaps the most important being a blinding relevance to our contemporary setting, and a provocative question: are all parent and child relationships inherently and emotionally reciprocal?
An arresting production in many ways, Janice Honeyman’s sophisticated direction draws out the dissatisfaction and sheer boredom of a French, middle-aged mother named Anne. Honeyman’s effective orchestration is instantly heightened by Nicolaas Van Reenen’s sound direction that always seems to be scurrying ahead of the action to set the thematic tone. But it is mostly Van Reenen’s moody digital slides paired with surrealist sounds which serve as an intriguing backdrop to Anne’s mental disintegration.
Costume designer Birrie Le Roux wraps the production in a sea of neutrals and reds, contributing to the story’s emotive trajectory. The set design, like the main character, is poised yet ominous, and portrays the family’s superficial need for luxury. A strategic placement of a chic antique mirror and mesh dividers adds a cinematic quality to many of Anne’s highlights. Here Le Roux, aided by Rocco Pool, draws inspiration from Italian minimalist decor to paint a rapt and voguish setting on the Fugard’s intimate stage. Lighting Director Mannie Manim amplifies each scene with momentous dimming and intensified movements which flow with the dialogue of the characters.
Bold, revealing and unorthodox as ever in her choice of projects, esteemed South African heavyweight actress Anna-Mart Van Der Merwe takes centre stage as the much loathed and commanding matriarch in Zeller’s tale. With magnetic stagecraft, Van Der Merwe revels in Anne’s stridency, vulgarity, self-disgust and fear of loneliness. For all her intense affection and erratic disruption, Van Der Merwe’s Anne is still superbly self-possessed and self-enclosed. Her English accent, heavy with Afrikaans undertow, actually lends a certain authenticity which renders her performance unique.
The character of Pierre seems far too underdeveloped for his crucial plot role as the direct point of the tension between the changing values of the family and the role of Anne’s husband. As Pierre, Graham Hopkins delivers a refined performance with excellent pacing, but his patrician elegance comes off more prop-like than instigator at times.
Sven Ruygrok as Nicolas fulfills all the requirements by combining haughty humorlessness with good looks and a whimsical credulity, but the surprising star turn is Amy-Louise Wilson as Èlodie. Wilson brings an element of mystery to the usually child-like character. Instead of the giggly, foolish demeanor, Wilson’s Elodie is somewhat timid, and her fetishist dependency on men is cloying.
Women are expected to look, act and think a certain way. And while these directives may not be explicitly stated, The Mother clearly depicts what they are. As Anne comes undone in front of our eyes, we see how unrealistic and harmful those standards are. Yet beneath this veneer of middle-class mayhem lies a myriad of clues for how to let the light in and banish externally driven expectations.
Benn Van Der Westhuizen
The Mother runs at the Fugard Theatre from 7 February until 4 March 2017.