BEMOANING THE OUTCOMES OF THOUGHTLESSNESS
Writer & Director Melissa Fergusson
Producer Anya Varezhkina | Amanda Turner
Presented by Charlatan Clinic
at Shed 9, Rhubarb Lane Development, 90 Wellesley Street, Auckland
17 Sep 2010
Reviewed by Lillian Richards, 18 Sep 2010
Motherlock is based around the assumption that you both can and cannot define a mother: her role, her behaviour and her basis in reality. Being a mother is both something that happens to you and something you choose; it is a reality, an unreality, a happening, a catastrophe; it is a natural occurrence.
This play is an attempt to follow the happenings of one woman throughout her life as partner, lover, and as two-time accidental and one time intentional ‘mother'.
Shed 9 as a venue is hard, cold, isolated and stark. It has none of the typical accoutrements of a theatre space and this works both for and against it.
In the ‘for' category: the ability to set up a stage that is gritty and sparse, lit by floor lamps that speak of bedrooms and boardrooms, hotels and homes, a clever assemblage of the various sets this play requires without going overboard on literalism.
In the ‘against' category would be the lack of acoustic support and buffeting. And here let me mention the storm. On the night in question the shed is racketed by a supernatural storm (which according to the NZ Herald is “the size of Australia”) that levels its might against the rickety corrugated iron of the warehouse roof.
Down the hall is a party blaring retro pop songs that push through the walls – “red, red wine…stay close to me, don't let me be alone…”– and some audience members having to leave part way, exiting as they do through massive steel doors that, upon opening, sound a little like a prisoner taking leave to the yard.
For a less focused actor this would have been enough to destroy them but Virginia Frankovich, who performs this one-woman show, holds her sh*t together remarkably well; she never breaks from character, nor does she seem to even really consider the storm. A trance like state is developed from before the show even begins and Frankovich manages to weave her magic and take her audience along for the ride; she captures us against all man made and natural odds, for which congratulations are decidedly due.
The play itself is book-ended by a concept of circularity, the notion of definition and its spurious relevance to something as intangible as motherhood. From this dictionary beginning we are led into an autobiographical timeline of writer/director Melissa Fergusson's childbearing years.
The writing is styled so that it comes off as part over-emotive poetry, part beat, like Kerouac in conversation with a high school student, and the work often states a lot of what is happening instead of demonstrating it. For instance, instead of Frankovich becoming saddened by an ex-husband's new relationship, she simply says the word “sad”. Now this could just be me, but I sort of thought that theatre was the expression of content not the explanation of it.
At times I felt like I could have just closed my eyes and I would have got the gist of what was happening on stage perfectly well, which is clearly a little alarming when the whole point of theatre is the need, the desire, the propulsion, to keep ones eyes open.
The plot steadily reveals the inner workings of a woman who pursues her own life in, around and totally affected by the chaos of others; a woman who keeps making the same mistakes. There is a line in the play that asks if patterns are inherent, if their repetitive nature is unavoidable. That question is mis-asked: a pattern by its very nature is repeated, that's what makes it a pattern. But behaviour repeated so as to create a pattern, now is that innate? I would say not for everybody; some people learn quicker than others what is and is not worth repeating.
At times the play lets us meet the men who father this woman's disparate family, her repeated mistakes (and I really don't mean that as a noun for the resulting children, who I'm sure are extraordinary and something Fergusson would never take back even if she could) and their dubious fastenings to a woman who is both unreal and unfastened herself; a woman who wants to be loved, obviously, but who somehow fails to meet the challenges and responsibilities of a modern sexualised woman.
I feel I can sum the whole thing up as this: an intelligent modern woman (with full access to prophylactics) acts thoughtlessly and bemoans the outcome.
Empathy is critical in the formula of a successful play, elegantly explained in this wonderful quote by Larry Sutin: “A good story should convince the reader (or the viewer) that you know and care a great deal about persons other than yourself.” Motherlock fails to really succeed at this because it is entirely focused on one woman and her actions, her basic emotions and her own disappointment in the life she has made for herself.
In particular, although this was presumably the entire premise, there is little mentioned about mothering at all; in fact I came away totally lacking any real understanding of this woman's family, as though the definition of Mother for Fergusson doesn't involve mothering. I feel like I understood her as ‘woman' but the idea of her as ‘mother' remains strictly medical: one, two, three birth scenes and serious pregnancy-related illnesses but not one thing about the love of the child, the devotion of a woman to a new life, the true majesty and perfection of a little person, vulnerable and complete.
Pondering the purpose of the full-length mirror that at one point is tilted back to refract the audience in a ghost type reflection that spins my head a bit. I become lost as to who this monologue is actually for.
It further proves the self-interest of this play that there is no obvious ‘listener' for Frankovich to direct her spiel to. Why and to whom is she revealing all these intimate details about her life? Without a direct purpose, Motherlock (the name I presume derived as a pun on the sometimes locked-in nature of ‘mother') feels like a diary reading, a blood letting, a private catharsis made public.
I'm not a director and I don't really enjoy it when a reviewer rewrites a play the way ‘they would have done it' because really, that's not the reviewer's job. But having made that wee disclaimer I would offer, as constructive criticism, this thought: the play could benefit from more ‘story- telling'. By which I mean that, given this is a true story, a literal chronological retelling of what happened to one woman over a length of years, I feel that holding true to that genre would give the play more gravitas and it would suit Frankovich's naturally powerful, clear and engaging delivery.
As it stands I felt that, overall, Motherlock comes off as more tabloidish (sic). The good thing about tabloids is that they are colourful, light hearted and all engaging for whole minutes at a time; they are pure entertainment. I would bill Motherlock as a sort of Sandra Bullock movie with a little bit of Diary Of A Call Girl mixed in, and I have to admit to really liking both those things in small doses at appropriate times. But they are not thought-provoking and they fail to challenge my view of the world or the decisions I make around how I want to be. For me that questioning is a prerequisite for all good art.
So coming back to the notion of definition: what is a mother and are we supposed to leave the theatre pondering this? Well I'll take it as read that we are but my definition of mother has remained intact, unaffected by Motherlock and one woman's forays into diapers and un-harnessed sexuality. In a hypocritical self-indulgent moment of my own, I'd say that motherhood to me is complete love of the other without limitations or self-concern, not self-abandonment either but a growing, a ‘wisening', a letting go.
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