When: 20 February - 3 March 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Werner Schwab
Directed by: Andre Bastian
Composition and video by: Daniel Fenby
Performed by: Alice Bishop, Helen Doig and Uschi Felix
Designed by: Peter Mumford
Lighting by: Stelios Karagiannis
Stage Management by: Millie Levakis-Lucas
|Alice Bishopm, Uschi Felix, and Helen Doig|
I have always wondered, given his magnificent wordplay and poetry, just how people have been able to translate Shakespeare into other languages. Having seen what Meredith Oakes has done with Schwab's writing I have come to realise for some writers, their work cannot be translated.
Schwab's writing is mired in neologisms and linguistic deconstruction. To try and translate a deconstruction of the German language into English is a fool's errand and nothing shows this up more that Holy Mothers. I am rather surprised that, as a German speaker himself, the director (Bastian) did not give the translation a go himself. I suspect it would have been less tedious.
I can't blame the entire tragedy of the evening on Oakes though. Schwab works in the areas of grotesque, black comedy, and post-dramatics. It appears nobody in the creative team or the cast are familiar with these theatrical concepts. Add to that a writer and creative team all made up of men trying to tell a story about women and, well, I am speechless as I said earlier.
In a pretty pink, symmetrical kitchen, three older women sit around a table, drink tea (and then later alcohol) and talk about being poor and their dependence on religion to make everybody's shit not stink. Anybody who has older relatives knows that feacal output becomes an obsession with a lot of aging people and Schwab takes this - and a biting contempt of catholicism - to absolute extremes in this grotesque piece of German Expressionism.
It seems Bastian is one of those directors who plays the text and not the subtext and this is one of the biggest mistakes of the night. Schwab is credited with reviving German Expressionism which is built upon the idea of blowing up the reality of the external in order to reveal the reality of the internal. By having the blocking and staging and acting so mired in realism it becomes an exhausting chore to look past Schwab's never ending text and see the truths he is trying to reveal .
This production is also not helped by it's snail pace. Comedy of any genre requires pace and energy or it bogs itself down (pun intended). In this production there are pauses Harold Pinter would be proud of and they are littered everywhere. The show is almost two hours long but it felt closer to three for me, and could easily have 20 minutes cut just by picking up the pace.
Comedy also relies on archetypes and whilst I think Mumford did try to address this in his overtly clownish costuming, the director and the actors seemed to work against this idea with all their might in the staging to their own detriment. Felix (Mariedl) did the best job and to be honest, if it wasn't for her work, especially in the second hour, I really would have climbed over everybody to leave. Doig (Erna) almost gets in touch with her OCD character, but Bishop (Grete) misses the mark completely as a desperately emotional woman who never stops believing in a beautiful life.
The women are mired in shitty lives and this concept focuses most viciously on Mariedl who has become a successful bog unblocker who never wears gloves and is happy to put her hands in amongst everyones stinky shit to keep the pipes flowing because it is the work of God. Schwab's razor sharp commentary comes to the fore when the local priest gets her to clear the blocked toilets at a party where he has hidden 'gifts' for a starving woman living on the edge of survival.
Given the lack of covert post dramatic staging during the majority of the play, the overt actions written in by Schwab right at the very end land like a fish flopping to death on a pier. It is hard for me to tell if that is a failure by the playwright because I lost interest so long ago I was having to force myself to not have a nap. I just knew it signalled the end and praised that horrible God the women were worshipping so avidly in the play.
Holy Mothers is definitely over written and I think it is a stretch to put him in the same basket as Sarah Kane as the director's notes suggest, but I do think the play is interesting - or it could be if anyone in the creative team knew how to read it and stage it. I don't think there is any good solution to the translation problems though. This is one of the problems for playwrights who play with language although sometimes they are some of the best plays written (in their own language...).