Maria Kearns & James Kearns
If you like your theatre outings straightforward and relaxing, Christiaan Olwagen’s DIE MOEDER, currently onstage at the Baxter Theatre, may not be the play for you. If, however, you take your theatre with the proverbialslap about the face/kick up the arse/gallic shrug (delete as applicable), well, step into the kitchen.
This Afrikaans translation of celebrated French playwright Florian Zeller’s La Mère (The Mother) all but dares its audience to look away from the tragic spectacle of a woman losing her grip on reality in fairly unnerving fashion. Ready yourself for a mother’s ruin, pink gin and all.
Anna, played with clear relish by Sandra Prinsloo, has been feeling the effects of the dreaded empty nest after the departure of her son (and, to a lesser extent, that of her daughter). She visibly unspools when talking about her beloved son (Ludwig Binge) and the girlfriend she insists isn’t nearly good enough for him (Ashley de Lange). With Anna’s nest being so very empty (if well-appointed), she’s also convinced that her husband (Dawid Minnaar) has been inventing business meetings and seminars in order to meet his mistress (in Pretoria of all places!). Minnaar truly shines inthe role of patient spouse and delivers a sensitive, understated performance.
Anna’s untethering is partially framed via the intermittent presence of a camera operator on stage. His footage is projected on to a large screen upstage, forcing the audience to split their focus between the action on stage and the alternative angle presented behind them. This blurring of artforms initially intrigues but soon becomes a distraction. Not only does the audience’s connection to the actors in the room suffer, but it also arguably hinders the actors’ ability to connect with one another on stage. Of course, to another’s eyes, this admirable formal gambit may pay off as an interesting exploration of the diverse ways to view theatre.
What may be slightly harder to look at through forgiving eyes is how DIE MOEDER seems to confront us with its unrelenting exploration of anti-feminism. At times, the hyper-modern set seems at odds with the apparent vintage of the tragedy being hemmed in by those minimalist kitchen counters: The bored housewife’s substance abuse and descent into madness upon the loss of her sole purpose in life —taking care of her darling son, of course— wouldn’t have looked out of place in a mid-century drama. Indeed, at times, we’re closer to a Victorian Angel in the House’s Miltonian eviction from Paradise. Anna’s apparent antipathy to her absent daughter also paints this mother as something of a relic. ‘You really need to find something to do all day (besides be a mother and go shopping),’ seems to be the refrain coming from Anna’s husband. Well… yes, perhaps it needs pointing out that for the last hundred or so years, women have indeed been doing things.
Those points don’t detract from Prinsloo’s performance, of course. Her exploration of Anna’s Jocasta complex is entirely riveting, and Prinsloo allows us a terrifying glimpse into the psyche of a woman who’s convinced she’s outlived her purpose. In terms of emotional range and the physicality the performance allows, it seems a dream part for a venerated actor to sink their teeth into.
There are no neat conclusions here, and nothing about this play’s going to leave you feeling comfortable. Whether this production truly earns your unease or does enough with that sensation once it emerges… Well, it might be best to keep mum on that.
DIE MOEDER is on at the Baxter Flipside until the 29th of April 2023. Bookings through Webtickets or the Baxter Theatre. Staged with English surtitles.