Thursday, May 28, 2015

Smother love

Playwright Florian Zeller ("young, blessed with the floppy-haired good looks of a rock star” to quote the programme biog) is the golden boy of French contemporary writing. An “overnight star” as a novelist at 22, he was coaxed into theatre by Françoise Sagan and at only 36 already has a drawerful of international awards.  As a dramatist he acknowledges the influence of Pinter and an aim to unsettle his audience, both dominantly clear in The Mother now at Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio until 20 June ~ a companion piece to The Father produced here last year with the same prestigious team of translator (Christopher Hampton) and director (Laurence Boswell).  Both plays represent an intense study of disturbed psychological mind-state, rather than the social role of the title: the father had dementia, and the mother is addicted to social drugs and suffering empty-nest syndrome.  In his professed intention to lead the audience into the character’s head and show reality through their eyes, Zeller is blessed to have Gina McKee in the title role.
She is simply superb, strangely empathetic even when irritating, cruel, obsessive and frankly deranged: her aura of exhausted beauty transforming a character who could seem, if were possible to whisper such a thought about a play by a giant, a tad clichéd.  The trio of family members she adores, loathes, needs, resents and suspects by turn are superbly well played too, but it’s this mesmeric performance that holds the story and the stage. Excellent design enhances the disturbing mood: a cold Hockneyesque set echoing the estranging couple's contact and disquieting music as the mother’s memory struggles into each new scenario. 
Quoting the programme again, Zeller has said his play was inspired by his own mother's sacrifices.  But it doesn't say what she thought about that.

As a confessional footnote, I wasn't one of those rapturously impressed by The Father last year, finding it ~ for the first time in my experience of the Ustinov ~ emotionally laboured and self-consciously 'prestigious'.  It went on to top the listings for Play of the Year. I mention this neither penitently nor defiantly but as the daughter of a theatre critic who wrote after the opening night of The Mousetrap in 1952, "I give it a week".  My father, I salute you.

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