As I watched the preview of Ruwanthie de Chickera’s new show, Cast as Mother, last night, the feeling that I was most overwhelmed by was that I missed my mother.
Mothers are wonderful, brave, curious creatures. They are not always easy to understand – they are often confusing. I think the glaring contradictions in conviction and character that are part and parcel of most mothers, come with the fact that they are probably executing one of the world’s most impossible tasks. It’s practically a trap: how is one supposed to balance trust and freedom, granting independence and yet being there to help, teaching children what you know about life and yet not imposing your values on them, allowing them to learn but protecting them from harm, friendship vs. discipline? The list – the list of things you’re meant to be balancing as a parent – goes on. Perhaps, then, the confusion comes with the job – after all, their convictions are probably being remodeled every day, their ideas about life being renewed, their views of the world in a constant state of flux.
My own mother is full of contradictions. She is extremely practical and sentimental at the same time, a total existentialist (“What will be, will be…”) but driven by emotion, instinct and passion. She is incredibly intelligent and wonderfully nuanced and insightful and yet can be totally clueless. There have been days when I find her glued to bad TV or engrossed in bad books. But she has bitingly good taste – she, the lover of Pedro Almodovar and Frida Kahlo, the reader of T.S Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, the worshipper of Pina Bausch and Martha Graham. There are days when she can’t for the life of her figure out how to open that aerosol spray-can of Glass Cleaner, but she will know exactly how to mend your life and will know every detail of political history you can imagine. She can be fiercely loyal and also utterly, irritatingly objective. If I were asked to highlight three defining things about my mother, people might expect that I say things like courage, wisdom, strength, compassion, determination. But I think – if I had just the three – I’d have to say optimism – she believes, without a doubt, in the goodness of mankind, the world and life, instinct – very clear, very strong instinct and integrity – she knows who she is and she knows what she believes and she makes her choices based on those beliefs, for herself and for no one else.
With her latest writing project, Ruwanthie, award-winning Sri Lankan playwright and director, brought together a team of women in theatre (both from the Sinhala and English theatre scenes in Colombo) – all of whom had recently (more or less) experienced motherhood. They wrote together and alone for one and a half years under instruction from Ruwanthie, with specific tasks set out by her, and on Thursday night, we were treated to a special preview of the manuscript, which is being turned into a production later this year in September. The project is meant to explore their experiences of becoming mothers against the backdrop of their experiences as women in theatre – as actors and directors.
The reading made me think, it made me laugh – and it made me miss my mother. In one task, the mothers had written letters – letters to whomsoever it might be that they most wanted to write a letter to. We heard a letter to her own mother (‘You have taught me the difference between like and love – I want my daughter to like me.’), we heard a letter to her child’s Principal (‘Why do we bestow so much power on you?!’), we heard a letter to her husband (‘How many movies have you watched in the last year?’). In one act, a letter is read by a lone woman onstage first – the letter to her mother. In a quick scene-change, we witness the same lines being repeated, but this time, as a conversation between two women – mother and daughter – who has now become a mother herself. The words, spoken before as a monologue, are now transformed, and every line, every sigh, takes on new meaning. This is Ruwanthie’s signature style – searing, powerful but simple staging ideas, through constant playfulness with dialogue (one calls to memory her play ‘Two Times Two is Two’ in particular), relying solely on the power of the dialogue and the potency of the performer. It was refreshing to see and experience, after a nearly 5-year hiatus from the renowned director and writer. The rest of the tasks too, were presented through sharp and simple staging tactics, giving real power to the writings themselves – and of course, the women themselves.
Some of the English and Sinhala stages’ best known actresses and directors took the stage that night, in strong and moving performances, speaking words written by them, both amongst them as a group and by them as individuals. The stunningly honest quality of the writing itself was given full agency, as our attention was never once directed away from the script.
The themes explored best and the ideas communicated most clearly were unfortunately somewhat predictable and simplistic: resentment towards a partner, a feeling of failure as a parent, the diminishing sexual confidence in oneself, the flowering of unconditional love and total commitment to your child, the need to protect. However, there were moments when the writings just barely touched on the issues that highlighted the more complex nature of motherhood: conforming children to meet accepted social standards, the issues of inheritance and passing down knowledge, values and life-lessons, the unpleasant business of parent-child rivalry and envy. I hope that one can expect that the full-length production in September will facilitate a full exploration of these more difficult issues.
However, the idea that these women’s’ lives had changed beyond recognition was established unequivocally. Their lives had become not their own anymore – their days filled with school homework and visits to the paediatrician and making costumes for the school concert. They do not engage with art and culture anymore, they do not have time for friends anymore, they do not have time for sex or relationships or adult conversation. And yet, what I had expected would be the true crux of the show, came in a single line, ‘When I am in the theatre, I forget about you’, and went subsequently largely unexplored. The question that I had assumed the play would attempt to answer – how have their lives as women in theatre, as creative artists been altered – remained more or less unanswered.
One often wonders about the ‘pram in the hallway’ phenomenon. Does the creative spark just go out when artists have children? Do their lives become so encompassed by their children that there is no room – no time – for anything else? Cyril Connolly said, ‘”There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” Is that true? Or can one be a good artist and a good parent? Can the experience of parenthood not reduce but enrich your artistic passion and integrity?
Frank Cottrell Boyce, novelist, screenwriter and father of seven, says in his piece ‘The parent trap: art after children’, ‘My children have been a crucial part of my work in ways that I find hard to account for or anticipate. If I need to go on a research trip for a book or a film, we’ll usually go as a family, and I find that – apart from the fact that it’s useful to have extra eyes and ears – people and places tend to open up to you more.’ In a glorious ode to chaos, family and the wonderful adventure of parenthood and how it has inspired, not diluted, his artistic desires, he defies the idea of ‘me-time’ implying that he finds it self-important and self-indulgent. He writes, ‘It’s not that I don’t like a break now and then. I just don’t buy the idea that the break is “because I’m worth it” or that I’m taking “the time to be me”. What is “me”, if not the sum of all my relationships and obligations? A customer, that’s what. The more you give, the more you are. Think of Chekhov, with his patients and his crowds of dependent relatives, whose living room became such a public space that he had to put up no smoking signs. His advice to young writers was “travel third class”. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s was to “buy carrots and turnips”. For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your “work” is actually fun.’
While the preview of Cast as Mother has certainly piqued my interest and anticipation for (finally) another work by Ruwanthie that will doubtlessly be inventive, insightful and movingly humourous, I do hope the full-length show does justice to the braveness of the initial writing, by matching it with a braveness in exploring what motherhood has truly done to their lives specifically as women engaged in art and the task of creating theatre.
Finally, this is a piece about motherhood – and it would, of course, need to do justice to that very institution itself. Perhaps this team of women needs no other incentive other than this: that they must portray, in all truth and honesty, no matter what that means and regardless of what they discover when they peel away the layers, what it is to be a mother – and they are, as we know, wonderful, brave, curious creatures.
Cast as Mother show dates – 13 – 16 September Lionel Wendt
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