Penned by playwright and poet Daniel Keene, Mother was written specifically for actor Noni Hazlehurst and director Matt Scholten. It was first presented by Scholten’s If Theatre in Melbourne in 2015 and, following a tour of Australia’s east coast and Tasmania, has now arrived at Belvoir for a limited season.
Mother is a one-woman show in which Hazlehurst takes on the role of Christie, a 60-year-old homeless woman existing on the outskirts of Melbourne. Physically and mentally, she is decaying. Over the course of 70 minutes, Christie tells her story of descent to a homeless life. It’s a frightening portrait, particularly as we come to learn it’s the accumulation of a handful of fateful events, bringing home the fact that this could very easily become almost anyone’s plight.
Christie looks back on her unhappy marriage to Lenny – a marriage both parties concede was borne out of loneliness. The couple has a child, who Christie reluctantly agrees to name ‘Lenny’ (though she confides in the audience that she secretly called the child ‘Beau’, because she “read somewhere that ‘Beau’ means beautiful”). But as the relationship collapses, Christie’s decline towards a destitute life begins.
Describing her life, she paints a vivid picture of dispossession, social exile and namelessness. “I’ve never had much but I’ve got nothing now,” she tells us. “For some people that’s as good as me being a criminal.” But perhaps even more distressing than the way others treat her is her profoundly sad description of the way she has come to see herself. “I don’t think anything about myself now,” she says. “I’ve given all that up/I wouldn’t know how to any more/I don’t know who I am/I’m just nobody.”
There’s also a snapshot of society’s intolerance of her that’s provided when Christie recalls an incident in which a young boy verbally abused her on the street. The story evokes familiar images of the casual abuse of those that sleep rough but, through her subsequent attempt to understand his behaviour, it also reinforces a central message in Keene’s text, which is that, most often, people are the way they are for a reason; that a person’s behaviour or their predicament is commonly the product of circumstance.
As time goes on, Christie’s connection to humanity becomes increasingly tenuous. She’s left to think about the baby she dearly loves, who she’s not seen for a very long time but whose ghost she carries. In a world in which she’s been totally abandoned, her son is the only person who would remember her now; the one person who could ascribe to her an identity that would endure after she takes her final breath.
Keene’s play is wonderfully written, favouring the vernacular and recognisably Australian language but retaining an overall poetic feel. In fact, not only is the script naturalistic, it’s disturbingly realistic, and it means Mother is a gut-wrenching work, which makes us ache for Christie. The piece’s length is also well judged, ensuring that its ultimate impact is not diluted.
Hazlehurst delivers an extraordinary performance that remains with you long after leaving the theatre. Under Scholten’s direction, she’s created a character believably displaced (physically and metaphorically) from society, and the object of derision and quick judgments. She evokes enormous sympathy from the outset and her storytelling is consistently gripping. We don’t just see Hazlehurst portray an eccentric woman; we see a familiar person who, like anyone, needs to love and to be loved. As she loses everything, it’s Christie’s love of her child and her belief in her motherhood that shines brightest.
Scholten has worked with production designer Kat Chan and lighting designer Tom Willis to create a simple physical environment for Christie to inhabit during her storytelling that visually speaks to the tragedy of her tale. Additionally, Darius Kedros’ soundscape is a powerful enhancement to select moments in the story.
Mother is a call to consider those who exist on the fringes; to contemplate the ease with which the lives of ordinary people can devolve entirely out of their control. For just 70 minutes, we have the opportunity to try to walk in another person’s shoes. It forces us to remember the fundamental human traits that bind not some, but all of us together. And it’s a chance to see Hazlehurst giving one of the finest performances you’re likely to see on stage this year.
MOTHER – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 11 February, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444