La Mama’s Holy Mothers takes a domestic world of petty judgement and watches as it slowly unravels into a distorted, nightmarish scene. Andre Bastian’s adaptation follows a translation of Werner Schwab’s original script, where three middle aged cleaning ladies gather in a kitchen to discuss their lives. The conversation flits from church and neighbours to disowned children, eventually spiralling into their own self indulgent and increasingly twisted daydreams.
The play centres around the trio of Erna, Grete and Maried, played by Helen Doig, Alice Bishop and Uschi Felix respectively. The characters themselves feel like a twisted take on Kath and Kim, but they are colder, crueler and more grotesque. Doig’s tense and tightly-wound Irna plays well against Bishop’s animated Grete, with each actor bouncing off the energy of the other. As Irna becomes increasingly hypocritical the audience is further exposed to Grete’s mean spirited fantasies, thus enhancing our understanding of both women. However it is Felix who steals the show. As the play progresses her initial distant cheerfulness devolves into an eerie and serene malice. She captures an impressive character arc, incorporating a biting humour that adds dynamics to the performance as a whole.
Despite these acting highlights, at times I feel the play drag as show becomes increasingly difficult to follow. It is unclear whether this is due to the long run time, the process of translation or just my own unfamiliarity with the original text. This piece centres around the horror of the characters judgements and imaginings, and when the dialogue is unclear it is easy to lose focus. I find myself becoming complacent as I lose track of the plot, which consequently diminishes from other positive elements that revolve around the storyline.
The design does its best to support the work and is undoubtedly one of the high-points of the performance. Peter Mumford’s set design takes place in a small, almost timeless dining room, where a recording of the pope’s inauguration plays on a television in the background. The shelves are full of religious knickknacks that slowly take the places left for the grandchildren they insist on, even as their own family ties are long disintegrated. In this way themes of the play are highlighted by the stagecraft, even when they are unclear from the text itself. Similarly, the world of Stelios Karagiannis’ lighting design shrinks further and further into the room within the performance, demonstrating the diminished perspective of the women. Daniel Fenby makes clever use of projections which add some clarity to the storyline as the show reaches its end.
This play has elements of black comedy, subtly placed to mask moments of grotesque. It is these combined with the acting and use of stagecraft that make the performance enjoyable. Despite an overall lack of pacing and a translation that was often difficult to interpret, Holy Mothers is an engaging piece of theatre
La Mama’s production of Holy Mothers ran from the 20 February – 3 March 2019 at La Mama Courthouse.
Photography by Peter Mumford