Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Holy Mothers - Theatre Review

What: Holy Mothers (Dei Prasidentinnen)
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
Wow. I feel speechless and I feel confident most people will after seeing the production of Holy Mothers at la Mama Courthouse this week. Unfortunately that wow is not a good one...

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...).

1 Star


  1. Just some comments via email from our audience that indeed knows about the difficult art of thinking:
    "Wow! What a show. Full of twists and the twisted!! I laughed a lot....then wondered if I shouldn’t be. A complex, funny, troubling play. Great performances all around. Congratulations. (T.)"

    "Very clear narrative line, very interesting directorial choices and great performances. ... my congratulations to the actors for their very clearly delineated characters, their commitment to the piece, and their strong clownlike performances." (P.)

    "I loved the physical romp of it all and the extremes to which the fantasies and fetishes were stretched.

    I giggled a lot..." (B.)

    1. I am glad people said they liked it. Remember, reviews are always subjective. I have to admit, on opening night I did not hear a lot of giggling and you have to concede that, in the great scheme of theatre this show is not exactly a physical romp with everyone sitting around a table for most of it. Having said that, it also depends of what audiences have experienced in the past so they very well may have been pushed out of their comfort zones and into a new world. :)

  2. Well, people where actually laughing out loud and giggling a lot. We had also a frantic applause that held for several minutes with people calling for actors to come out again. (Which they didn't for this crazy habit in Melbourne). I'm so glad I have a recording of this opening night and if you'd like me to give your subjectivity an update, happy to play it to you.

    But, look, I'm the director and possibly biased. However, I'm commenting on this to a) state that I've rarely seen actors getting more kudos after a show, and b) contest your mistaken concept of critique. Critique in the first place has to be I formed and several of your statements show me that you are not. I'll simply give you two examples and then leave it there: a) you mention the translation; it is actually an internationally celebrated translation which is congenially turning Schwab's language into the English idiom. This is not a simple job since the whole German (including the Austrian) theatre tradition is about poeticising language. So much about your somehow stunning idea of 'overwriting' . In this sense most of German literature is 'overwritten' and has, with this, produced one of the largest pools of Nobel Prizes ( I hope you know this international award for literature). Secondly, your idea of the director taking his own go on the translation is bordering the absurd or rather legally problematic. Given the fact of an existing translation, changing this except in rare moments is simply not possible/allowed. One last thought: I like to suggest you to have a go at critical literature about the theatre of the nineties when you make statements about Kane, Schwab etc. Observing that Kane, Ravenhill, Schwab and Koltès were often named together I was just stating common ground if the critique. Very erudite people, hence, that might have read quite a bit of that literature.

    Anyway, of course, there is also taste in a review, and as Kant truly reminds us, taste is beyond argument; and if I read around a bit on your blog I am pretty happy to have gotten one star. I would have questioned my craft and judgement had I gotten more. However, an honest advice from an experienced theatre director and scholar who's seen quite a bit of the world: read, read, read.

    1. Hi Andre, yes I know Oakes did the first translation of the play but I also know many reviewers have, in the past, commented on the fact this version of the play can easily slip the audience into boredom, which it did for me. I wasn't suggesting you change her translation, I was suggesting you might want to do your own. Of course, as you say, Schwab played with language which makes translation difficult regardless of who gives it a shot.

      The trick with reviewers is to find the ones you agree with and just stick with them. That will make you feel good about yourself and not provoke you to challenge your perceptions. A much happier state to be in.

      I agree that my Masters in Writing for Performance from VCA and twenty years working in theatre in Australia, the USA, Italy and the UK is not necessarily the strongest basis for an educated opinion, but I do my best...

  3. I don't care about bad reviews. I just wanted to do justice to three great actresses who do an excellent job and put things right with regards to several doubtful suggestions in your review and comments as well as with regards to a couple of opinions you express that are expressed in a way that is bordering to personally insulting to them. Otherwise, I would not have exposed myself to understandable criticism for interfering into the process of criticism. I myself usually don't interfere.

    1. It is great you feel the need to jump in and save the innocent maidens like all good knights do but that is why I suggest a play about women is tricky when all the creatives are men because women don't need rescuing by chivalrous knights. Also, my review is my opinion. Just because a couple of academics with an agenda choose to suggest Schwab can be included in the British 'in-yer-face' mob does not mean I have to agree. (I have quite a fondness for that crowd by the way). My comments about translations is one hundred percent valid and for many directors who do Chekhov for example search far and wide for the translation they are comfortable working with. Your choice of play, translation, and performance style are all on you as the director. The acting also falls partly on you too, but having said that I have seen Doig and Bishop in Summer and Smoke so I have a familiarity with what they do with their craft as well. Keep going but be braver and take risks. You are in Melbourne and this city has some of the boldest and most innovative theatre makers in the world. Being safe just won't cut it here.

  4. Thanks for your eye-opening comments and your courage to publish both mine and yours. (BTW: 1) the creative team includes three actresses who chose this play and the translation explicitly in an open democratic process that took us a year of discussion; 2) you cannot just make another translation of a playwright who has passed away only 25 years ago and when there exists a generally accepted and often acclaimed translation that has succeeded so many times; see )
    Thanks for this exchange of ideas about reviewing (not to be confused with just expressing an opinion).

  5. ... ah, yeah, and I know, it's like the best coffee in the world you get in Melbourne...

    quoting Grete in the play: "Cheers"

  6. Hi Andre - I take your point on the women having a say in the choice but once you agree to direct you are saying you are okay with it. I like this swapping linkd idea so here is one for you :)

  7. A pity the reviewer didn't remain 'speechless', rather than write a semi-literate and misleading review. She speaks of Schwab's 'magnificent wordplay and poetry' and then says the text is 'mired [sic] in neologisms and linguistic deconstruction' (i.e.??] She does not like Meredith Oakes' translation; but the distinguished theatre critic Michael Billington praised it, for retaining the play's 'louche vitality'.

  8. It is a pity you are not brave enough to say who you are but you miss the point which is that the original work is all about (perhaps mired was a bit prejudicial) wordplay in German (or Austrian if there is a regional difference I am not familiar with). My point is that when you play with language how then, can you translate it into another language? Language semiotics are incredibly complex and, as Oakes has attempted, stool can mean stool or stool, intercourse can mean intercourse or intercourse, etc. Language is not tansferrable like mathematics because it is embedded in signs and symbols beyond the words themselves and when you deconstruct language it is those signs and symbols you are playing with. This is what makes translation so problematic. By the way, I wouldn't be much of a reviewer if I didn't actually say something now would I?... Oh, and please do feel free to point out what part of the review was misleading. I am always open to correction when it is accurate.

    1. Your remarks on translation are naïve, ignorant and misleading. To assert the impossibility of translating a text that deals in wordplay is absurd. It's a challenge, but not impossible. There are many examples of sophisticated/playful prose texts (e.g. Georges Perec) that have been brilliantly translated. The same is true of poetry, which is almost a form of wordplay by definition. It's worth noting again that Michael Billington warmly commended the translation by Oakes. The audience I sat among last Friday seemed to appreciate it too - they were killing themselves with laughter.

  9. Dear Samsara, sorry for this, but now you really make me laugh, because from what you say I take that you have no knowledge of German and thus couldn't get that what makes Schwab so good is his subtle use of a certain Austrian dialect, and that Oakes indeed found a way to render 'the untranslatable' into English in other ways. There is not much word play in Schwab; it's rather a particular use of syntactic structures, morphemic oddities and outrageous metaphors and symbolism. So, the difficulty lies all in the rhythm, not at all in the word play. And this is particularly achieved in Oakes' translation and has been explicitly lauded. So you really dare to make a judgement without being able to compare both original and English version. This is what I would call a very courageous attitude indeed.

    In terms of your other courageous observations about the untranslatebility: Go ahead: they go against what a whole discipline (Translation Studies) would uphold. But, please, don't let yourself discourage by the knowledgeable. It's better to have an opinion and stick to it. However, from my many and long discussions with Elfriede Jelinek's translator into English and from my own experience I can tell you that it is painstaking... but it is always possible. The idea of a simple transfer, however, is indeed naive. But you know that already since I can see that you are a real specialist.

    Well, if I'm honest, it worries me a bit with regards to the reliability of your other statements. But well, if I can take up your rhetoric figure from a couple of interventions above, this is only said by a humble translatior whose translation of an Australian playwright recently was performed at the Staatstheater Nürnberg, one of the leading German theatres, and got precisely lauded for its intuition and rhythm.

    And now I leave this. And again, my heartfelt advice: read, read, read... and learn German if you'd like to make judgments about translations from the German.

  10. I appreciate the discussion about translation for Mr/Ms Anonymous (a very brave person indeed) and Andre. My comments about the difficulties of translation stand or else there would not be so very, very many English translations of Dante's Inferno. If there was only one 'proper' or 'insightful' way to translate into a language so difficult and polyentemolous as English the very first translation would be all that was needed and the rest (there are well over 100) would just be exact copies of the original. To deny this is to demonstrate a surprisingly level of 'blinkeredness' to the conversation on the part of both of you. By the way, I really don't care what Billington thought. Firstly his opinion is of no more value of mine as both are just opinions. Secondly it is possible the production he saw was directed and performed in a way which allowed the audience to appreciate the nuances of the writing better than the one I saw. Comparing his experience to mine is apples and oranges. Not just because of the performances, but also because of the cultural context in which it is being shown. England is not Australia. He is a man and I am a woman. Billington acted in one show and directed one show which was received poorly so he is hardly a theatre practitioner. To compare his experience and knowledge as a theatre maker to mine is like comparing the mouse and the elephant - and he is the mouse.

  11. and what happened to the comments I left 2 days ago?
    a factual 4-point list
    are you selective in what you publish?
    your self-image is admirable...I am sure Billington would agree...

    1. I am sorry, where is the four point list? I have responded to the question about the variety of translations (which specifically refer to the problem with poetry), and Billington (a non-entity in this discussion as he was merely expressing an opinion of a completely different production). I wasn't in the audience on Friday so I can't comment on that. What actual point of fact have you raised? I will be happy to respond if you remind me :)

  12. Of course reviewing is "just an opinion" but critics have a responsibility to be informed, informative, fair and responsible.
    I am with the many others who have expressed positive comments.
    Schwab wrote his plays as parodies of Volkstheater and post-dramatic theatre. It's a pity Bastian did not mention this in his notes but his direction hits the intention perfectly.
    As do the actors (realism, really?). To learn and speak Schwab's intentionally artificial and cumbersome language with such ease is a great feat and must have taken ages to perfect.
    I really hope your 'review' will not prevent people from seeing for themselves what a clever play this is. On the night I went, it was not "nearly 2 hours long" but exceeded the 90 minutes stated by precisely the time it took to seat the large audience.
    Finally, tread carefully not to slip into insult and keep in mind that Independent Theatre is dependent on box office sales.

    1. oops, I meant to say 5 - 10 plays a week during my Masters degree...

  13. My review is informed, informative, fair and responsible. Within the scope of theatre and theatre skills on offer in Melbourne this production was poor. I see more than two shows a week every year and have for the last six years which is the length of time I have been reviewing for various publications. I also have a Masters in Writing for Performance during which I was required to read some 5-10 plays from across the world and across time so I am well read. I am a theatre maker and have been for 20 years both in Australia and internationally so I am familiar with what other contemporary artists are doing, and my research area is early 20th century art movements. As well, I am a poet, a playwright, a podcaster, etc. The one area I admit to not being overly familiar with is Volkstheater but I did do some dramaturgical research before writing this review as I always do. In my opinion (all reviews are opinion), as an experienced critic, theatre maker and audience member, this is not a good production and whilst I am an independent theatre maker myself and understand the risks, this is not a show I can recommend because compared to everything else the audience can go and spend money to see, this production is weakly directed, unconvincingly acted, and disappointingly designed. I am all for 'give it a go' but when the audience are paying for the experience in a town with theatre as vibrant as ours, the audience should have knowledgable choice. Having said that, there are many people who disagree with my taste and opinion and for every person who may be dissuaded you will probably find five or more who find my indictment exactly the shove they needed to go and see the show. That is how the art of critiquing works.

  14. Oh, Samsara, if all were about titles and quantity... I'd tell that I hold a PhD in Theatre Performance from one of the best rated Performance Studies departments worldwide and I've more than 25 years of experience in theatre as director and dramaturge in residence and as author and translator of plays... but it isn't.

    It comes down to taste. You're right. And taste can be informed or not. And judgments can withstand criticism or not. You don't speak German and offer judgments about translations from the German. You don't know much about the genre of Volkstheater and offer judgments about the long tradition of this genre and how to work as a director within this genre which opts mainly on less rather than more in terms of movement, stage design, etc. (or its parody... although I prefer the idea Schwab pushed Volkstheater to its boundaries). All good so far, you have your little blog here and feel entitled to write about theatre as much as I feel entitled to bore you with my "bad direction". And anyway: it's a good way to see a lot of shows for free and jot down a bit of brainstorm material about it afterwards.

    Now, the thing I'm stating again here is, apart from inviting everyone to go and read your comments and learn about your hardcore agenda, that you purposefully mislead your readers when you do not discuss the difference between your taste and the long, loud applause of the opening night, the long and loud laughters, the giggling, the sometimes shocked reactions, the sudden silence in which you could hear a needle dropping and all those other things. All due to the incredible craft, effort and energy of three actresses that were celebrated after the opening and still are after each night. And believe me, I have too much to lose to uphold things here that are not happening. The season is too short (due to La Mama's blow of fate last year) to risk that some people who would love this show are put off by your review. Right, if you guys like only post dramatic text smashing, this is not your show: it's simply not the text you would do this to.

  15. Hi Andre, I merely point out my background because you and others have inferred I am illiterate, unread and lacking in what is required to have the right to an opinion as an audience member. I pity anyone else who goes to see your play who is not a illustrated specialist because apparently this is a requirement. You perhaps should have put this in your marketing. You obviously don't want that audience so it doesn't matter if my review puts them off. I do think you are confusing your role as an academic and a theatre maker. As an academic I am sure this is an interesting text and it might have the potential to be interesting theatre. As a director I am saying you have failed to create something engaging. I did not measure the length of applause but I have a disability which makes my arms weak and usually my arms get too tired to clap for good shows. I was in no danger of that. It is also true opening night audiences are always kind as they are filled with family, friends, and sponsors. Finally. I only work in post dramatic formats. Post dramatic theatre was born out of theatre of rebellion by feminists, disenfranchised socio-economic and non dominant ethnic groups as a cry of rage and despair against establishment. We are still raging but, as was predictable, the establishment (white, middle class males) have moved into this space. This is why your production isn't working. As a white male academic you have so much privilege you have no idea where that place of rage is. Without understanding that your direction was always destined to be flat.

  16. Be careful. Your privilege is showing. 😉

  17. Be careful of making assumptions only because you see the face of a middle aged white man, Samsara.

    ... and for your studies: have you looked into the genealogy of poststructural theory and so-called postdramatic practice? Have you looked into the faces of those who from the 1960s set free those forces of epistemological liberation you are talking about? Well then, if your observations are to be taken seriously: PST and PDP are nothing more than 'little heaps of shit'... to say it with Schwab and his Holy Mothers.

  18. Hi Andre

    I wouldn't go that far, but you have to remember post dramatic theatre is function over form. Any study of the process is bound by the inevitable restrictions of manifested form and in academia it is very easy to then go 'well, the form all of these subjects have is this and so it follows that this is what the subject is'. Post dramatic theater is the grandchild of Expressionism (and to be really controversial I will say Vorticism as well). Post dramatics take a form and then break it down and break all the rules and sometimes refuses to even start with the rules or engage with them at all because what it trying to be expressed is unsayable in agreed constructs. Change never happens from within and this is the inherant understanding post dramatic theatre brings. I have thought about this a lot and I suspect that final scene of Holy Mothers is about Schwab wanting to be so angry that they have to become as loud as they can possibly be and they have no more patience for 'standard theatrics' to finish telling the story. And that musical break should have been in our faces and drowning out our ears. Schwab wrote listening to hard core music. Do you think that was making him and his writing calm and controlled? Of course not. In Holy Mothers he is an angry, angry man. This is where the comedy was meant to lie, this is where the logic was meant to come through. Greta and Erna kill Mariedl because they are angry and sick at the lies they are sold to accept the shit they are forced to wallow in. This is what you did not understand. Post-dramatic theatre requires putting the frontal lobe in the background and bringing the amygdala front and centre and forcing the audience to do the same.

  19. Your reading of the play is outright wrong. Go back, read again.

  20. Andre, my reading of the play can't be 'wrong'. Or perhaps, if it can, then your reading of the play is wrong...? Neither you nor I are Schwab and so all we can do is piece together the hints he left behind. It is art. Art is subjective. In your world view Holy Mothers obviously means one thing. In mine it means another. It is one of the risks you have with art in a global society. I will always (and can only) read art through a white female Australian lens just as you can only read art through a white male German lens. So perhaps in Germany you are right and in Australia I am right? An absurd statement of course, because in theatre it is not only the signs and semiotics of the writer, but also the signs and semiotics of the director and other creatives involved in the work and then layered in again is the ability of the actors to then absorb and interpret all of that into meaningful performance. And then, on top of that you have the ability of the audience to read those muddled signs and semiotics. I can't be wrong as an audience member. If I seem to have gotten it 'wrong' you need to look at what you created as a director and ask the question what sign or semiotic (or lack there of) was it that caused miscommunication. Theatre is the art of live communication. The problem is always is the transmission, not the receiving.