The existential crisis of the loss of motherhood excruciatingly performed onstage.
The COVID-19 pandemic has left most of us mentally exhausted and burnt out, uncertain when we will ever reclaim a sense of normalcy ever again. In many ways, Pangdemonium’s staging of The Mother encapsulates that same feeling of despondence, in its portrayal of a mother struggling to let go of her maternal role, and the madness that soon follows.
Directed by Tracie Pang, The Mother follows in the same vein as playwright Florian Zeller’s other two works, The Father and The Son, once again tackling invisible mental health issues arising in our families. But of all three plays in the ‘family trilogy’, The Mother is by far the most challenging one to perform, not only in the immense skill it demands of its lead actress, but also the complexity in stage direction and vision required to execute the script.
At the centre of the play is a middle-aged, unnamed mother (Janice Koh) spiralling into a mental breakdown while going through empty nest syndrome, as her son Nicholas (Jamil Schulze) moves out of the house to be with his girlfriend (Mehr Dudeja). While her husband Pierre (Adrian Pang) tries to comfort her, her mind has begun to unravel, leading her to suspect him of having an affair, leaving her feeling utterly, completely alone.
The Mother’s drama comes primarily from the mother’s growing inability to separate fantasy from reality. Zeller’s script presents us with a hopelessly damaged woman, particularly with how scenes tend to be repeated in quick succession. The main difference between each one is a distinctly more positive outlook from the mother at the beginning, yet both versions still end in certain doom, suggesting how regardless of her condition, there is no escape for her from this purgatory on Earth, leading her to her eventual psychotic break. James Tan’s lighting is essential to representing the state of the mother’s mind; beyond illuminating the cast, there are times they are choreographed to resemble neurons in the brain activating, flashing bright as if all her synapses are flaring up from a trigger that threatens to send her into a crisis.
To represent such a cerebral play, Eucien Chia’s set is abstract, structured like a towering labyrinth of shelves, as if symbolic of the mother’s mind, initially organised and her thoughts neatly compartmentalised. Yet, blank spaces in the structure seem to suggest the emotional void she feels as she is no longer the mother she envisioned herself to be, while there are enough hidey-holes to store repressed memories, metaphorically. Over the course of the play, we watch as the mother’s psyche rapidly deteriorates, and her desperation grows to uncontrollable degrees. Dressed in a silky bathrobe and nightwear at the beginning, Janice’s costume (by Leonard Augustine Choo) already suggests that she is a woman who has primarily confined herself to the house, in stark contrast to Pierre returning home in a business suit, her loneliness killing her mind day by day.
It’s not long before her suspicions lead her to increasingly unhinged thoughts and fears, doubting her husband’s fidelity when he comes home late and even dreaming of murdering him. Her insecurities flare into jealousy when Nicholas visits, and endlessly praises his girlfriend in front of her. Naturally, her interactions with the younger woman are also antagonistic and filled with tension, often on the verge of physical violence, and she begins to scheme drastic measures to reunite her with her precious son, even to the point of self-harm.
With such a complex main character, our feelings towards the mother ebb and flow with each passing scene, ranging from sympathy to horror. In her performance, Janice possesses an indomitable stage presence that allows us to feel fear when she devolves into her worst self, while also evoking pity in us with her desperation and sheer devastation in realising her relationship with her son can never go back to how it used to be, crushing her spirit entirely, particularly as she reminisces on how happy she used to be in the past, only to be left utterly forlorn by the reality she has to accept.
To that end, Janice Koh has gone above and beyond a simple performance, rising to the challenge to imbue this woman with nuance. Going beyond pure delusion, her ability to capture the mother as an ordinary person unable to cope with her changing circumstances allows us to understand that this is a woman we might walk past every day, perhaps even a member of our own families, and how much pain and suffering a mother might be going through inside, and one of Janice’s most excruciatingly heart-wrenching roles yet.
Perhaps, after seeing her in such low spirits for most of the play, we cannot help but find ourselves horrifyingly, rooting for her when she finally picks up the nerve to fulfil her twisted dreams once and for all. Changing from dowdy home clothes to a stunning red evening gown, we see her with a renewed sense of purpose, a youthful fervour in her physicality and gait, and commanding attention in her every move. As the lights flash, Janice is all we can focus on as she strides across the stage, trying to fill the voids in her life until the very end, even if it means ending things once and for all, a tragic modern heroine to pity and fear.
But like Zeller’s other plays, there is no firm happy ending, as The Mother ends on an ambiguously dark note. Even after the final family tragedy, giving us the hope that the mother-son relationship has the possibility of mending, Zeller’s script pulls the rug from underneath to leave us shocked by the end of the show. In our final look at the mother, we see her so far gone in her depression, that she is no longer aware of the real world, or cares any longer for anything that happens, good or bad to her.
What The Mother presents is a tragic portrait of a woman with a shattered psyche, unable to cope with the very real phenomenon of growing older and losing her purpose as a mother. As dramatic as it all comes across onstage, the depiction of The Mother is all too real, and likely to resonate with anyone who knows women in a similar predicament. If there is hope at the end of the day, it is that this is a play that inspires us to reach out to these women, seek ways to help them cope and find a new lease on life beyond motherhood, or at least, try to mend things before it is far too late.
Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, for Pangdemonium
The Mother plays at the Victoria Theatre from 22nd October to 7th November 2021. Tickets available from SISTIC