“Rachel Bagshaw’s direction moves the action backwards and forwards with an efficient pace and energy, but we do occasionally get bogged down in explanation”
“When they called saying your body had been found, I had one immediate thought. I remember thinking that maybe now I’d be free”. These are the first words that Sam (Gemma Lawrence) speaks to her mother Kath (Eve Ponsonby) in over three years. Sam has just arrived in the small town of Taos in the New Mexico desert to identify the body. The freedom to which Sam is referring is obviously emotional rather than physical as there seems to have been little communication between mother and daughter up to this point. Nevertheless, Sam would still be seeking some sort of closure, and conversations with the deceased are often consoling.
Not so for Sam. She’s not talking to a corpse, but a mechanical representation of her mother aged thirty-five, into which her mother’s memories, emotions and biographical data have been uploaded. But sadly, not a lot of her personality. Artificial Intelligence has been taken to its technological, moral and unsettling extreme and we are invited to question the nature of death and human consciousness. But before we have much of a chance, we are whisked back to Kath’s student days where there is much talk about the 1968 protests, Vietnam, Cambodia and changing the world. In writer David Farr’s world, it is peopled with caricatures whose urgency and fervour seem to be being lampooned. The link to the present is a touch tenuous, but on the stage the two settings are constantly rubbing shoulders with each other in the revolving doors of a confusing narrative. We are not really sure where to invest our interest.
The dichotomy suits Sam though. Gemma Lawrence is a very watchable presence, particularly when she begins to thaw and engage with her mother’s posthumous identity. Initially outraged, she warms to the idea and we, in turn, warm to the general theme of the piece. Farr explores the flip side of Artificial Intelligence. The Future Life Corporation, where Kath is recreated, focuses on the ‘unintelligence’. The flaws that make us human. It’s not just about synthesising data, but also the false hopes, the self-delusion; the layers of deception inherent in us all. The mess and the chaos. And the unspoken love.
It is a very wordy, and at times worthy, play. Rachel Bagshaw’s direction moves the action backwards and forwards with an efficient pace and energy, but we do occasionally get bogged down in explanation. The use of surtitles is questionable and sometimes distracting and unnecessary. The performances cannot be faulted. Eve Ponsonby’s Kath seamlessly flits from her ardent past to the robotic present, and Clara Onyemere’s portrayal of Tristana Cortez – the humanely pragmatic supervisor at the Future Life Corporation – is one of the highlights of the evening.
The crux of the issues remains unanswered – as they probably always will be. “How do you create a person who has no idea who they are?” asks Cortez. “A Dead Body in Taos”, despite containing some insightful dialogue, doesn’t quite know what it is either. Like some of the scenes there are too many voices vying to be heard. We long to have our focus tied to a stronger lead. Perhaps that is the reason behind the surtitles after all.
“has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness”
“If I’d known you were going to act like this, I wouldn’t have told you” complains Jessie to her mother mid-way through Marsha Norman’s one act play, “’Night, Mother”. On the surface it’s a fairly run of the mill, snappy remark for a thirty something divorcee, living once again in her mother’s house. Although what she has told her, quite casually, is that she is going to kill herself. We know by now she isn’t joking; but with a punchline as shattering as that so early on it is hard to know where to go from here. But this play covers plenty of ground within the confines of ‘Mama’ Thelma’s mid-American country home, thanks to Norman’s contemplative yet penetrative writing. And two outstanding and moving performances from Stockard Channing as emotionally charged ‘Mama’, and Rebecca Night as the matter of fact, bloodless, Jessie.
“Where’s Daddy’s gun?” It’s a throwaway question as the two characters wade through the clutter of domestic routine, the lightweight delivery belying the Chekhovian gravity of the dialogue. There is a moment when we think we might be in for an evening of cheerlessness, but the rich humour that courses through this piece keeps it warm and alive. There are many times we laugh, but they are guilty laughs, aware of the seriousness of the issues that are tackled. No life lessons are learned but the way we view the veneer of our comfort and privilege are questioned. Mother and daughter seem happy enough. Yes, their lives are mundane, but they are cosy. Or so it seems. The conversational tone of the drama cuts deep and the scalpels that slice through the heart clearly reveal the ways in which people can hurt each other.
“If you’ve got the guts to kill yourself, you’ve got the guts to stay alive”. Channing beautifully morphs from dismissiveness to desperation as she ploughs her energy into dissuading her daughter from carrying out the final act. We will her on, gripped by her performance. Jessie, the daughter, is the harder role to convey but Night handles the clashes and conflicts of a damaged soul with a natural skill. It is almost impossible to sympathise with the character, yet we do. Jessie, an epileptic since a horse-riding accident, has been suicidal for nearly ten years. “I came off the horse because I didn’t know how to hold on” carries an intense metaphoric weight. She has lost her sense of ‘self’ without hope of reclaiming it, yet the paradox is that she is not selfless in any way. It can be argued that her intentions are the most selfish of all. Night’s performance is such that you simultaneously accept and reject her predicament – a paradox that runs through the whole text.
“I can’t stop you ‘cause you’re already gone”. Channing is the one to win us over ultimately. Her concern drifts from what will happen to her, to a heart-rending resignation to the fact that she might not be able to save her daughter. Roxana Silbert’s meticulous direction, which brings out the realism, keeps us on the edge of our seat.
“How could I know you were so alone?” Mother and Daughter were with each other all the time, yet the parting question epitomises the problem. “’Night Mother” has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness, and highlights the many relevant issues that surround mental illness today. That it can do this in such an entertaining and engrossing way is testament to Norman’s writing and the exceptional skill, charisma and sensitivity of Channing and Night, who hold the stage throughout.