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The Mother - Southbank Centre - June 2019

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The Mother – Thu 20th and Friday 21st June


Two warnings...


Firstly, this is a very, very long post; for many, the reaction may well be TLDR. I can’t apologise for this because...

a) parts of it don’t make sense without other parts,

b) there have been limited performances of this new production so a fair amount of detail is required (that detail was gleaned from talking to others who attended as well as from my own memories – as such there will be mistakes!), and not all of what I regard as relevant is to be found in the reviews in the press and on the web,

c) for those who didn’t see it, there is a level of detail that I can’t go below for my ramblings to have any chance of making any sense (if Symphony in C is a perfect Platonic solid, then The Mother is a messy Mandelbrot Set),

d) for those who did see it, this post might stimulate recollections of their own experience and interpretations, which I’d love to see posted.


Secondly, it contains loads of spoilers.


My Experience in a Nutshell

I went to the Thursday evening performance having already seen video from its premiere (and also from rehearsals) in the Force of Nature Natalia documentary; I knew the fairy-tale on which it was based in outline only, and did not read until afterwards the copious notes provided by the choreographer, producer, etc, (which in hindsight were really, really useful) in the glossily-produced, picture-rich, advert-lite and, consequently, rather pricey programme (£10 for 40 pages!).


Part of me wishes I had done more preparation, and part of me thinks it might not have been that helpful; as with other deliberately ambiguous, fiercely challenging recent productions (Akram Khan’s Giselle is a prime example), I found this ‘narrative dance theatre’ piece (which is how Arthur Pita describes it) needed to be experienced more than once to really ‘get it’ (the nearest equivalent I can think of is the film The Usual Suspects; the first time my youngest son watched that with me, he immediately wanted to watch it again so he could experience it in a new, informed light – it would not have been possible to prepare him for the first viewing so that the second was unnecessary; that, I guess, is the ‘price’ of a good story).


I came out of the first performance of The Mother with more questions than answers, and slightly let-down by what I thought was a ‘cheap’ resolution; however, throughout the second performance the mostly familiar vignettes unfolding on stage were building a narrative in my head that addressed almost all of those questions and caused me to well up by its apotheosis.


The Set

Imagine an empty, square stage as a giant pizza box, then place a giant pizza on it; then cut the pizza into three giant slices; then erect 3m high walls along the three cuts you have made; then remove (eat?) the pizza; then decorate the faces of the walls demarcating each of the three 'slices’ to resemble the grimy, decrepit interior of a flat from some 1960s-stock, hi-rise, hi-density housing – bedroom/nursery, kitchen and bathroom (complete with fixtures such as beds, baths, kitchen shelves, etc, as well as a door in each wall).

The three walls can be rotated around their central axis like the spokes of a wheel to present to the audience each of these three scenes; the stage itself does not rotate.

The action takes place in these three spaces, with the walls rotating to atmospheric lighting, stage smoke and music as appropriate.

This arrangement does reduce the size of each set to less than a third of the full stage – even more so when the props (bed, bath, etc) are factored in – which limits the range of dancing but adds to the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere.


Even though I went to sit in my seat some ten minutes before the start, the musicians were already playing background music, and Natalia Osipova was prowling around the ‘bedroom’ slice of scenery to which the stage was set. She looked pensive, restless, stressed and worried (Arthur Pita has used this device before – in the interval preceding Facada, Frank Moon sits on the stage playing a guitar-like instrument, while the mother-figure sits on a chair, full of pent-up, nervous energy).


The Story Unfolds

The performance proper began about 15 minutes later when the lights went down, the music increased in volume, and the nightmarish story played out as a gruesome sequence of encounters with various disturbing characters, all played by the only other cast member, Jonathan Goddard.


Osipova is anxious because her baby is ill; its cries, which feature throughout the piece to galvanise The Mother into action (and, as a result their realism, also trigger responses in us), prompt her to call the doctor. Goddard arrives (with shadowed eyes like a modern-day Nosferatu), gives Osipova medicine to make her sleep, switches the baby in her arms for his rolled-up lab coat, and spirits the baby away.

When she awakes and discovers her loss, she expresses her abject horror in what will become a recurring way – loud, crashing music and tornado spins across the stage (the geometry of the sets does rather limit the amount of space on which to dance). The baby’s cries are heard and draw Osipova through a door.


The set rotates to the kitchen, where a figure dressed as a Russian peasant woman (a Babushka) stands, back to us, rocking her arms in time to the baby’s cries. Osipova enters on the other side of the room. The Babushka turns to show us her face (a silvered convex mask – nicknamed, to general hilarity, ‘Babushka Spoon’ in the Force of Nature documentary) and what she is cradling – an old radio playing baby cries. She re-tunes the radio; it plays the Russian national anthem, which she waves away dismissively in a rare moment of light-heartedness, and re-tunes it to another station playing music.

In what will become an iconic part of this piece, Babushka and The Mother dance an increasingly frenetic series of traditional dances (in the fairy tale, she has to sing all her childhood songs); the music seems wonderfully folksy, as do the rapidly-executed steps.


Osipova leaves the kitchen and finds the bedroom overgrown with flowers (in the fairy tale, Death is essentially a gardener, cultivating the plant-equivalent of each person until they are ready to ‘harvest’). In an explicitly gruesome scene, Goddard, dressed now as a woman in black (think Grayson Perry going to a funeral), dances Osipova along a bramble, cutting her feet, then places Osipova on her knees, arms out to each side, and tightly wraps a long bramble around her arms, waist and neck, and pressing them into her palms; this causes her to bleed all over her pale shift dress, and those bloodstains stay there for most of the rest of the performance; this is the start of her physical suffering (the ‘blood’, of course, is already on the brambles and simply transfers – but it is incredibly effective, especially with Osipova’s acting skills).


A further gruesome episode then occurs in the bathroom. Goddard enters dressed in oilskin fisherman's gear (he is a blind boatman, with blood-stained surgical swabs over his eyes). He feels his way to Osipova, then feels her head and eyes. He wants her to give up her eyes in exchange for being taken on the next stage of her journey to find her child. He seats her in the bath, feels his way to the medicine cabinet, takes out a spoon, returns to the bath and proceeds to dig out her eyes. He fishes the eyes from inside the bath, puts them into his eye sockets and ‘looks’ at us for the first time. With his sight restored, he then places cotton swabs over Osipova’s wounds – she is now sightless. He then takes her on the next stage of the journey.


Once alone again, she performs another solo, imagining and yearning for a (past or future?) lover’s physical touch (these solos also allow time for the other dancer to change costume). Goddard enters, dressed like Osipova in a blood-stained shift, but with long white hair instead of black. This white-haired witch covets Osipova’s black hair, and this desire to be like her is represented by them dancing together in a highly synchronised way – with nicely coordinated, jerky arm and leg movements. She gives up her black hair in exchange for the white hair of the witch and help on the next stage of her journey. The set revolves to show a spot-lit (stuffed!) fox on the bed, and carries on revolving to the kitchen.


Osipova now dances a solo showing her sadness and desperation. She is at the nadir of her physical abasement – she is bloodied from the lacerations of brambles, and has had both her eyes and her hair removed.


The set revolves to the bedroom. In place of the fox sat on the bed, there now sits a man dressed in a khaki/green army uniform. Osipova wanders around, encounters him, and the pair begin a brief courtship (at long last she smiles!) that ends with him in his underpants and them both in bed ; they draw the sheet over themselves and – thankfully! – the stage lighting is turned off.

When the lights come up again, Osipova is asleep on the bed and the man (he must be the same man for he is in the same underpants – you notice these sorts of things!) is standing on his head on the floor, seemingly naked apart from his underpants; spilling out in front of him is a black cloth covered in sequins.

He leaps up and we see the sequined cloth is actually the inside of an open matte black coat he is wearing, and his head is totally enclosed by a sequined, black, skin-tight hood.

This, presumably, is Death himself.

Osipova wakes up, and Death fishes from his pockets two eyes; he shows them to us, held in his open palms (reminiscent of the eyeless monster in Pan’s Labyrinth), and places them in Osipova’s eyeless sockets. She can now see again!


She dances around some more; the music is more structured here, more insistent, and her dancing more purposeful – it felt at the time like things were starting to move towards some of conclusion. The next time we see her – in the bathroom – she has got her hair back (the last strands of the witch’s hair she plucks from her head and flushes down the loo!).


The stage switches (to the kitchen?), and we see death (still with a sparkly, tight hood, but now in a skin-tight matte black body-suit) enter with a wheelbarrow full of small, similarly black, infant statues (Death tends a garden in the fairy story). He places these around the room.

Osipova enters and visits each one, trying to identify the unique heartbeat of her child (the music has a background of different heartbeats at this point – very effective!).

She finds hers, cradles it, but Death takes it from her and puts it back with the others.

Death leads her to the bathroom, where he drags the bath centre-stage.

I thought it was gruesome up to now, but the shock of what happens next caused some around me to gasp.

Death fishes a very lifelike baby from the water in the bath and holds it, dripping, aloft. Is it alive or dead?

Its limbs look like they have started to decay in places, but coughs and cries are heard. But Death convulses with that cough, as if he is making these sounds.

He offers the baby to its Mother, and she cradles it; she seems to have come to the end of her long journey.

After a while, Death demands and takes it back. Distraught, The Mother vents the emotion of losing her child in a frantic solo to crashing percussion. She climbs into the bath and thrashes around in the water. When she emerges from the bath, the dress has been cleansed of most of the blood.

She takes the dead body back and calmly leaves the stage.


The final scene takes place as did the first – in the nursery/bedroom. A very pregnant Osipova enters with colourful shopping bags. She happily takes from them items of baby clothing, and a cot blanket. She takes the blanket to the crib and sits down on the chair in the same repose as at the start of the performance; she falls asleep and the lights dim.


The Performers

Both Osipova and Goddard are on stage the vast majority of the time (and the piece is about 80 mins; 90 if her prelude is included). There are not many extended solos or duets, but some of the action is as explosive as a 100m sprint. It is an impressive feat of sustained acting/dancing.

There is not a lot to say about Osipova’s performance other than she takes her usual approach of totally and utterly committing to it; while she was pacing around the stage before the start, I noticed through my binoculars that the areas around her knees were peppered with small bruises.

Goddard was equally amazing: I’ve seen him in a number of contemporary dance pieces before, but never in one with such a strong narrative thread, and certainly not playing different characters – what a complete and utter, seemingly-boneless revelation he was!


The music was trademark Frank Moon – lots of strings, synthesised background, discordant/skewed notes, sound effects, sung overlays, pounding bass/percussion – but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his music louder. It seemed a bit cacophonous the first time, but by the second performance I found my increasing appreciation of the narrative meant that it supported – and was supported by – the action on stage.


The ‘Meaning’ of the Narrative

Having completely enjoyed the spectacle of the first performance, and marvelled at the dance/acting skills of both Osipova and Goddard, my immediate, slightly disappointed reaction to the ending (one shared with a number of people I spoke to) was “Oh, so it was just a dream…”.

As a ‘Deus ex Machina’ plot device, ‘the dream’ cop-out is getting a bit hackneyed. My disappointment also stemmed from the high regard in which I hold the ‘creative team’ – surely Pita/Osipova/Moon/Goddard wouldn’t fall at the last hurdle?


So, I started to read the programme - and that crazy kaleidoscope of sound, light and movement I had just seen started to cohere into what, by the end of the second performance, became an artistic endeavour that was clever, complex and even profound.


There is a page in the programme with a statement by the producer, Alexandrina Markov, in which she states (I paraphrase) that they did not set out to create a literal reading of the fairy tale, and that The Mother explores the deceptive forebodings, nightmares and paralysing fears that often accompany pregnancy; they also tried to move the finale as far as possible from the idea of death. For nine months a woman carries a whole universe, and one with an unpredictable future.

This made me recognise that at least we can wake up from dreams/nightmares, but a pregnant woman's fears relate to the being she is carrying continuously for months on end, and for whom she has continuous responsibility for years afterwards; she can't just wake up from the reality of the pregnancy and the needs of the newborn, or the massive changes these have on her body and, partly in consequence, on her psyche.

If the perfectly natural, incredibly strong maternal instinct to keep a child out of danger gets out of hand by imagining how such scenarios might progress in harmful ways, then surely those imaginings could spiral into a living nightmare?


So, one reading of the on-stage action is that the final scene of a pregnant Osipova is a prelude– those self-reinforcing, imagined terrors have yet to kick in.


The Russian connection is strong – Osipova’s background, the numerous supporters listed in the programme (including Roman Abramovich!), the Babushka, the traditional dances and music, the National Anthem playing on the radio, and even the fox.


The setting of this tale in a Russian context is most likely to recognise Osipova – the dances with Babushka reflect steps from the childhood memories of Osipova (this was shown in the rehearsals in the documentary) which ties in with the theme of ancestral and cultural influence on our life stories referred to in one of the commentaries in the programme (in a neat touch, pictures in the programme of key personnel in the production also have pictures of them as infants with their mothers).


The fox appears at least twice; firstly, on the bed before her encounter with the soldier, and secondly just before the final scene.

In Russian culture, the fox is a trickster, and Death in one of the programme commentaries is referred to as tricking the mother.

OK, so the fox on the bed is Death; and its appearance presages Death tricking The Mother into sleeping with him in the guise of the soldier.

The significance of the last appearance of the fox, just before the pregnant mother appears, is more difficult to figure – who is the trickster represented by its presence?

Could it be the choreographer? Has he been playing a trick on us, and what is that trick?

Death, towards the end of the fairy tale, offers the mother two paths for her child’s future life story – one happy, one sad. Is the choreographer, mimicking the tricksy behaviour of Death, similarly offering us a choice as to how we see the story playing out? This idea is supported by something Markvo says in the programme – ‘It is important for us to let members of the audience decide for themselves where their unknown country is’.


If so, the first interpretation mentioned above (the final scene as a prequel) is the ‘sad’ outcome – the horrors lie in The Mother’s future.


A different, second reading is that the child did die, and that the pregnancy at the end happens subsequently. But in what way could this be the ‘happy’ outcome? My answer to that came to me in the latter part of the second performance, and it caused things to fall into place in such a way it raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

In the first half of the performance, The Mother loses the child and literally tears herself apart in her asymmetric battle to get it back (Death is so much more powerful than we are); she is lacerated and bloodied; she loses her eyes; she loses her hair. Yet these injuries are gradually reversed – she starts to recover.

Death gives her her eyes and sight back; she ends up with her own hair again; when she has to give her seemingly lifeless baby back to Death she dances a paroxysmal outpouring of grief and rage, but when she then gets in the bath and thrashes around, she gets out of it with the bloodstains washed away; she then takes the lifeless baby calmly and leaves through the door.

To me, in this interpretation, the death of the child was real, and her whole gruesome journey represented her psychological battle to come to terms with a loss that was so profound it struck at the very heart of her psyche – motherhood – and was threatening to tear her apart. The initial suffering she incurs gradually heals and by the end she has recovered enough to face up to becoming pregnant again. In fact, the five stages of grief are all represented in the on-stage story - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – but this is still a ‘happy’ outcome because she attains acceptance and moves on with her life.


Is Once Enough?

I wonder how many people present on the first night went back to see it again on the second? I say this because although there were fewer people in the theatre on Friday compared to Thursday, the audience reaction seemed stronger – there were quite a number in the audience giving standing ovations. Were there a lot of repeat attendees who, like me, ‘got it’ on the second viewing?

This begs the question, of course, as to whether we should need repeated viewings (and also thorough reading of an expensive programme) to get the most from a piece of dance theatre? If it means an experience as rewarding as the one I got on my second viewing, then my resounding answer is ‘yes!’ even though it ‘cost’ me twice as much.


I’m happy to go back time and time again to Mayerling, Manon, La Bayadere, etc, not only because I love live ballet and like to see my favourite dancers, but also to increase my appreciation and enjoyment of each performance by understanding finer and finer nuances of the narrative (I’m sure there are members of this forum who get equal enjoyment from the finer technicalities of ballet steps). The Mother is not perfect, but I’d have gone back again in a breath for the Saturday matinee if circumstances had been different.


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6 hours ago, Sim said:

Great review Nogoat, thanks so much.  What is TLDR?!  


‘Too long, didn’t read’ ... or in this case didn’t click Nogoat’s link at the very top.  


I’d never heard of TLDR and find acronyms off putting, a throwback to an earlier time when working for an organisation that would not allow any acronyms in published reports to help the reader.

Edited by JohnS
Aversion to acronyms
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Ooops... hoisted by my own petard! :rolleyes:

I carefully inserted 'further info' links into the long post, including one for TLDR, but forgot to put one in the short post - the exact place it was needed for those for whom Too Long; Didn't Read would apply.


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