I went to see Mother on Wednesday night with no intention of formally reviewing it, but it has left me with so many feelings that I thought I’d jot down some thoughts about it – I’d love to hear yours if you saw it, too!
Noni Hazlehurst could draw sympathy from a stone with her riveting performance in the one-woman play, but that is also the major issue I had with the play itself, particularly the ending – that Hazlehurst's character, Christie, is an object of sympathy, not of empathy. I'm still feeling conflicted the day after seeing it and have been trying to drill down into why.
The piece is a 75-minute monologue, delivered by Hazlehurst in the role of homeless woman Christie, scratching and patting and shuffling as she speaks about the events that led to her current lifestyle, digging through bins and walking the streets of Melbourne. Hazlehurst is barely recognisable in this role, layered in costuming and heavy with the stoic grief and dark, cackling humour of her character. Lighting design by Tom Willis established days and the passing of time, and Kat Chan’s costuming, set, and prop design established the squalid conditions of Christie’s life and few possessions. Sound design by Darius Kedros also assisted in bringing Christie’s world to life – the squawk of birds, rumbling of a train overhead, and the crying of her beloved baby.
The programme notes talk about the way that we, as a society, view homeless and other vulnerable people as ‘other’ than ourselves, because we are afraid – because it could be any of us living on the streets, with just a few different circumstances beyond our control. Parts of Christie's story echoed of empathy, certainly – issues of enabled addiction and mental illness, struggling through new motherhood without support, a fraught marriage and fractured familial relationships – but in many other ways, especially in the final minutes, it felt she was pulled further from the audience and our recognition, rather than closer.
Christie lives below the poverty line prior to becoming homeless, and while that population is certainly one of the most at risk of experiencing homelessness, this removes her further from being relatable to most theatregoers – tickets to Mother are $60, which is reasonable for middle to high income but unthinkable when you’re living pay check to pay check, if that.
There is no denying that Daniel Keene’s writing is heavy with craftsmanship – careful prose, poetic at times and darkly comic at others, dialogue written so perfectly for the character and for Noni, who worked with Keene and director Matt Scholten to form this work. The programme and play both explicitly discussed the likening to or treatment of homeless people as criminals, and yet the final implication of the work is that Christie has committed a truly horrific crime. She becomes a literal criminal, which makes the audience question everything they had felt about her initially. By making her into a criminal in the conclusion of the work, Keene undoes all of the recognition and compassion that he has so carefully laid down earlier in the work.
Overall, I was gripped by Hazlehurst's performance and that awe has stayed with me since the house lights warmed back on, but so too has the feeling that this representation may not have been one that pulls down barriers between its audience and people who are experiencing homelessness.