Melbourne based indie theatre company, Iron Lung, are thrilled to be bringing Marsha Norman’s award winning play, ‘night, Mother to Chapel Off Chapel next month. A disturbing and somewhat surreal work, focusing on a mother and daughter and their final night together, ‘night, Mother is an emotional rollercoaster of a ride that will resonate with many.

For director (and co-artistic director of Iron Lung) Briony Dunn, her connection to the script was immediate and familiar..

“When I first read ‘night, Mother I was astounded at how easily I could recognise both myself and my mother in the mother/daughter roles of Thelma and Jessie,” she says. “When someone is a mother the profound responsibility of that can mean they end up loving someone in a way that is controlling instead of freeing. Many women I have spoken to see aspects of this in their relationship with their own mothers. Unfortunately most children cannot name what they need when they need it, until years later when they say “You didn’t give me what I need.” Having struggled with being controlled as a daughter and being controlling as a mother, I know these women and their particular push and pull in my bones.

‘night, Mother is a potent American Pulitzer Prize winning work that grapples with many themes: isolation, loneliness, death, suicide, freedom of choice, survival and identity to name a few. In many ways, a harrowing expose that is bold, brutal and honest in its telling. Dunn’s hope is that the piece will resonate with people who have ever felt trapped, or have ever felt they were not enough. Dunn also believes that the play also serves as a wake up call to pay attention to the people around us; to add a little more love and empathy into our day-to-day existence.

“I believe all we have is the here and now, and how we communicate and feed each other matters as a very sincere top priority,” she says. “I’m not saving it for later. The Andromeda galaxy is hurtling towards ours, so let’s get a move on in looking after each other. This play highlights how we could be doing this right now in our living rooms.”

Dunn explains that Norman writes about ‘invisible’ people, and that really dominates the themes of this play. When she first wrote ‘night, Mother, suicide was not a common topic of conversation on stage or screen. 30 years later, although the topic is certainly on our viewing platforms more often, the notion of someone taking control over their life through suicide is very much still a taboo topic as it instills fear. What if by talking about suicide we plant the idea in a young person’s mind? Let me tell you this. The ‘idea’ is not the problem. The ‘not talking about the idea’ is the problem.

But Dunn does not believe this play is about suicide. Nor is she convinced it is about depression or living with an illness or living in emotional isolation from the people closest to you – other strong themes of the play. Dunn posits that suicide in Norman’s play is a metaphor for power, and the other issues represent forms of disempowerment. “This is what looking at the play through a 2019 lens can do, it allows us to see the play as being about one woman regaining her autonomy in one shocking act,” she says. “This play is a wake up call to look at the people around us and the relationships we are in. How well are we connecting with the people around us? Can two people be close their whole lives and not really see each other? It is the planned suicide that forges a greater honesty and thereby a rejuvenation of the stale relationship between two women.”

A long time in the making, Dunn first heard about the work fifteen years ago when one of her directing students chose a scene from it to work on. She hadn’t heard of Norman prior to then, and was compelled by the uniqueness of the central dilemma.

“Having read all of her plays since, I am in awe of how varied her work is,” says Dunn, now a fan. “Working on ‘night, Mother involves us working as detectives in a very detailed and specific way. She uses clever repetition of key words which are a delight to discover, and is a master at placing only one or two clues embedded in the text as threads for us to unravel. We’ve become artisan explorers, and there is a sense of elevating oneself and working at a high intellectual level to unearth the truth to each of her clues. Our table work has been longer on this play than what might be normal for an 80s two-hander, but it means our floor work is very grounded. The quality of the writing reminds us each day that we’re working on a Pulitzer Prize-winning text.”

‘night, Mother is ultimately a play that, some may say, offers a positive response to tragedy – that we can and should own them and thus gain the capacity to move on. Nevertheless, the subject of suicide is one that is not often talked about, even today, so should we see more of these types of ‘taboo’ plays on our stages – are enough of these types of plays performed? And why is it important to see plays that tackle important and significant themes on our stages?

Dunn’s view is that probably not enough of them are performed, but that perhaps says more about the climate of Australia and it’s theatre goers than the plays companies want to perform.

“We have a lot of intelligent companies making plenty of challenging theatre about taboo topics for some very engaged theatre goers, but perhaps their audience reach is quite small,” she states. “That highlights the important of the independent and small scale sectors. It can be difficult for main stage theatres to program many plays with taboo topics. If there was an arts section at the end of the news before sport, audiences would get better used to thinking about these issues in a theatrical format, and audiences for taboo and topical works would increase.”

Dunn is a graduate of the NIDA Directing course, and also has a Master of Arts in Theatre from UNSW. She is currently based in Melbourne where she runs the Masterclass series at Active Performance Studio. As director, tutor, script assessor or filmmaker, Dunn has worked with an impressive list of esteemed companies including: NIDA, ATYP, Griffin Theatre Company, Company B Belvoir, Belvoir Downstairs, Big hArt, Ashfield Youth Theatre, PACT Youth Theatre, Carriageworks, Playworks and Playwriting Australia.

As a creative, she has no limit on genres she likes to work on. “I’ve directed everything from dramas to comedies to devised pieces to mashing up two classics into the one text to musicals to avant garde works,” she says. In fact, Dunn is more interested in characters who go through pain as part of their significant journey within any story. “Pain can be interpreted in many ways of course,” she explains. “But if it doesn’t really hurt, I’m not really interested. For me drama is about watching characters grapple with and perhaps even comprehend extraordinary or horrific truths in their lives which threaten their values and sense of place. That pretty much sums up every play I love.”

This is also the basis of the choice of Iron Lung as a company name.  “An actual iron lung is a life force. They force breath to where there wouldn’t otherwise be breath. That’s our company. We stage plays that tear away layers to expose truths, thereby breathing new life in to that truth. They all involve women at their core. I’ve directed plays about men that I have just loved, but right now my focus is on women in the framework of living. Who are they, what does the framework do to them, and who might they be if the frame broke?”

Iron Lung came about as a collaboration between Dunn and co- artistic director Esther Van Doornum who both having a passion to explore texts that burned in their hearts when, on reading them, the pair felt compelled to one day stage. “We needed a theatrical entity that was dynamic, mobile and adaptable to support these compulsions, says Dunn. “The most practical idea was to start a company together. It was that simple. We work as co-artistic directors on Iron Lung. Esther is an actor. I am a director, so those roles made sense. I have a lot of experience making independent theatre, whereas Esther has a background in different areas of design and makes an excellent creative producer. Where we don’t have a skill, we bring on people to the team. Social media and connecting with people on those forums is important to us so our company places a lot of focus there. Esther and I agree on everything, such as programming of plays. If we don’t agree then we state our case, give it time and discuss. Cohesion is important to us so a clear path always finds a way.”

A fortuitous meeting between Dunn and Van Doornum at drama school in Sydney was the beginning of the relationship, but it wasn’t until 5 years later when the pair bumped into one another on the Newtown train that promises where made of coffee and an ongoing mutual relationship was born. “15 years later we were finally having that coffee when Esther said, “We should start a company together.” And I replied, “There’s this play I have to direct you’d be perfect for.” Two weeks later we had the rights to ‘night, Mother.”

Dunn’s view is that ‘night, Mother is a play  about life and death and everything in between, on a Chekhovian scale. “We see two characters quietly going about their lives in a semi-urbanised environment, in almost complete privacy. Against this small scale backdrop a large scale tragedy is played out. We witness the struggle of our inner selves asking the biggest questions possible about happiness, mortality and the meaning of life, amongst the minutiae of commonplace domestic existence.”

“Theatre audience’s should also know this play is A Doll’s House for the 20th century, 102 years later for another era. Like Ibsen’s masterpiece ‘night, Mother depicts a woman who will not be defined by gendered conditions of success, or of societal expectations of how she is valued. With threatened suicide as a metaphor for how far she is willing to go to claim her agency, it too ends with a door closing irrevocably on her old life. ‘night, Mother is about a woman saying no to all the assumed associations that may be commonly expected of her, to be a good daughter, to be a good wife, to be a good mother, to keep a steady, satisfying job. These expectations still exist in 2019, even if we all try and say they don’t.”

August 7 – 17

Actors: Esther Van Doornum, Caroline Lee

Director: Briony Dunn

Images: David Paterson