As the audience wander in, two men, one young and one old, wait on the stage – they look particularly un-actor-like, and sometimes one of them sighs as if in boredom. Once the conversation starts, they pace out the triangle on the wide empty stage. It’s naturalistic, snappy dialogue, and there’s an occasional chuckle from the audience at some of the more pointed exchanges. But there’s something strange. Why does the apparent dad refer to the fact that “your father’s never here”? Why does the son call the father “Mum”? And come to that, why does the father call the son “Anne”?
It’s because the older and younger man are in fact playing a mother and daughter. It takes a while for this to sink in, but you have more than once chance to work it out, as their first five to ten minutes of dialogue is repeated – with some slight variations – and then repeated again. The device of having two men play the mother and daughter, while an older and a younger woman sit quietly at the back corner of the stage, is implicit; it is never actually referred to or signalled. After the show, I found out that it’s always a real-life mother daughter pair who sit at that table at the back.
The text is a merging and reworking of all the thousand little interactions that make up the mostly unthinking bulk of our contact within a family group. We get a picture of the extended family, sometimes with different stories, and themes arise of estrangement, loveless marriages and illness and death. By the end of the play the two men – or mother and daughter – are having a slow and sometimes painful and emotional conversation together. But they are still locked in the tyranny of the ordinary, and there is an even greater sense that there may be something more to be expressed.
It’s an attempt to compress an archetypal mother/daughter dialogue into the space of a show. But we are distanced from it – entirely deliberately – because these are men talking: walking in the way that men walk, shabbily dressed in the way that men do when they don’t care, with shaggy beard and prominent beer belly in the case of the older man, a youthful adolescent look for the younger. The intention is to make you focus on the words and relationship and not on appearance or femininity.
But it didn’t really work, either for me or for large sections of the audience I saw it with. Jo Caffrey and Max Runham did bring a lively repartee to the initial conversations, but it seemed as if their energy and intensity flagged in the quieter end stages. By the time the quieter more intense phase of the conversation arrived, a tranche of the audience was restless; plastic glasses cracked, looks were exchanged, suppressed chuckles broke out at inappropriate moments.
There were some lines that kicked my suspension of belief way out of kilter. In answer to her mother’s question, the daughter says she hasn’t peed in the shower, to which her mother replies “good, it’s a cunt to clean”. This line, repeated at least twice as the dialogues rewound and evolved, rang out so discordantly – not because of its obscenity, but because it’s such a stereotypically male insult. It just didn’t fit, and for me, stretched the deliberate distancing so far that it snapped.
To be fair, the night I attended, the Bosco theatre was cold, and the full-on crowd and music outside in the Speigeltent was reverberating throughout the auditorium. So it wasn’t the best of venues for an intense intimate performance. But my feeling is that some of the fault was structural; the attempt to manoeuvre the audience into a deeper appraisal and feeling for a kind of universal mother/daughter relationship simply didn’t come off.