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Esplanade’s The Studios 2022: An Interview with Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed on ‘Recalling Mother’

Since they first met on the set of Theatreworks’ production of Beauty World in 1999, fellow theatremakers Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed have remained fast friends to this day. Not only do they frequently hang out to chat over a meal or drink, the two also spend time sharing their innermost thoughts with each other, telling each other the stories of their families, musing on where they are and how far they’ve come. And if there’s one production that encapsulates their friendship, it’s Recalling Mother, which receives a new staging this September.

Playing as part of the Esplanade’s 2022 season of The Studios, Recalling Mother sees both Claire and Noorlinah performing in an intimate space, telling us stories of their mothers, and what they remember. First staged in 2006, Recalling Mother received critical acclaim, and has since gone on to see multiple restagings in Singapore, Brisbane, Adelaide and New York.

Claire and Noorlinah in rehearsals for 2022 staging of Recalling Mother

But more than just a rehash each time, Recalling Mother also takes the form of a living play, with every new edition evolving and changing, by virtue of both performers growing older and wiser, as do their mothers, necessitating updates to the script with new experiences and updates on their changing relationship. In this newest iteration, subtitled ‘Her Lines, My Lines’, Claire and Noorlinah offer yet more sagely wisdom and timely reflection, inviting audience members to think of their own relationship with their mother with tenderness, compassion, and empathy. 

Recalling Mother started from a place of friendship and our relationship as fellow theatremakers,” says Claire, on the origins of Recalling Mother. “Whenever the two of us met up, we’d talk about our mums, and we realised how many similarities we had in our relationship with them. My mother communicates primarily in Cantonese, while Noorlinah’s speaks in Malay. They both grew up poor, and didn’t have the opportunity to be educated, but both turned out to be wonderful cooks and wonderful homemakers.”

“Come 2006, the The Magdalena Project conference arrived in Singapore, to platform women in performing arts, and we took it as our opportunity to make something new and perform something during the conference,” continues Claire. “And after the initial performance, each time we restaged a new version of it, the piece changes ever so slightly in relation to the themes we explore, pinning them to each moment in time. I don’t think we expected to come back to it yet again, and to think it remains a living work that continues to find a new staging even 16 years on, and continue to relook and interrogate who we are with them now.”

16 years on from its first staging and a global pandemic later, age has affected everyone, and in turn shifts the way both women perceive their mothers and see their roles changing. “When my mother moved in with me, she realised that I had become a changed person since the last time we lived together, as had our relationship,” says Noorlinah. “The same goes for Claire, especially when she got married and was no longer just her mother’s daughter, but a wife in her own right. And by the time the 2016 staging came about, both our mothers had become immobile. With each version, we chart the ageing body, and how it affects our relationship, and how the stories we tell end up evolving. From my 30s to my 50s, I have transformed from daughter to peer to caregiver. How do you deal with the fact that your mother will one day pass away, and confront your own mortality in the process?”

“With this version, the subtitle ‘Her lines, My lines’ was taken from the first piece, and while it began with us imagining them as the lines of our palms, for me it’s more than that, with the lines representing how we encounter different ways of looking at same story, the same memory, yet different as time goes by,” Noorlinah adds. “Like when my mother said ‘tak apa lah’, which means ‘it’s ok’ or ‘never mind’, and I used to think it was because she had no words for it. But now looking back, it was more about how she may have interpreted it differently and didn’t want to respond to to something I said, rather than lacking the vocabulary for it.”

2009 staging of Recalling Mother

For both Claire and Noorlinah, the prospect of doing this play together never gets old, and in fact, has been important as a means of maintaining their friendship and providing a way for them to continue working together. “I think the space of our friendship has continued to mature and change over time. We get very busy doing our own things, and I appreciate that we’ve had the chance to do this show so many times,” says Claire. “We have this safe space for conversation and one that is of respect and trust that is so important for this work, and in turn has allowed me to navigate my own relationship with my mother, and see her as more than a mother, as a person with her own life and fears, and who allowed me to accept her and understand why she seemed so difficult at times. In putting ourselves into our art, we become so vulnerable, and it impacts our personal lives.”

“This is a very vulnerable work, in the sense that we dig deep into our own selves, question ourselves and our relationship with these significant others, our mothers,” says Noorlinah. “Most children have a combination of wonderful and intense moments with their parents, and we end up confronting all of them, and have to trust that the space exists for you to be yourself and that you will be listened to, honoured and given the opportunity to realise that is important for you.”

“In making work and sharing stories, we are giving these histories and memories weight, and requires a depth of friendship and relationship I am privileged to have with Claire,” she continues. “To think it was all just telling stories of my mother to my friends at first, and I didn’t think it would ever be a show, and I’m glad that the two of us are still doing it together, 16 years on. It feels so good celebrating a woman considered in our society to be non-essential, non-economically viable, and that we shouldn’t aim to be her. Mainstream media celebrates the woman we ‘ought’ to be, but not these women who may be less educated, yet carry a wit and intelligence invisible to society, or traits like love and generosity. Recalling Mother allowed me to finally celebrate that, and I am very glad to have this journey.”

For Claire, who is co-artistic director and co-founder of Checkpoint Theatre, alongside her husband Huzir Sulaiman, this edition of Recalling Mother is also very special, as it coincides with the company’s 20th anniversary. Almost serendipitously, Recalling Mother was also preceded by the premiere of The Fourth Trimester, a play that dealt with the harsh realities of motherhood in the 21st century, as portrayed through millennial parents.

“Both plays actually coincide in how they both discuss how the ‘job’ of motherhood isn’t recognised. A friend who watched an earlier version of Recalling Mother said they saw the play as the story of the life of a mother who lived, and what her life is, and the untold stories of millions of women whose work is not appreciated enough or recognised enough,” says Claire. “It’s a powerful piece because there is so much that is not talked about, as a woman, as a person who has gone through the ‘trauma’ of giving birth. It’s a celebration, but also an interrogation of an aspect of what it means to be a woman and woman’s body as well. I wish I could say with certainty that things are better, and yes, we do have choices our mothers didn’t have. But you see what’s happening with abortion and the legislation of bodies with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the conversation has shifted, and also regressed.”

2015 staging of Recalling Mother

With traditional Asian parents wanting the best for their daughters, it is no surprise that both Claire and Noorlinah’s parents had their doubts at first about them going into a theatre career and becoming every Asian parent’s nightmare – an artist. “My father was the one who was against me going into theatre – he asked me point blank, ‘how are you gonna survive and make a living?’,” says Claire. “Both my mother and father came from poor families, and didn’t have access to the same education they gave me. Oddly enough, through this project, I found out my mother actually wanted to run away to a Cantonese opera troupe when she was a kid. However, she eventually realised she had to earn money for the family.”

“On my part, the first question my mother asked me was whether I would get CPF. I said I would be paid a salary, but left out the fact that there are times it would only be for 2 months, the salary might not be much, and it would be long hours,” says Noorlinah. “She never disapproved of it, but I remember how rehearsals were very long, and how I would come home so late at times, and was even locked out of the house by my stepfather as punishment. I remember coming back one time and climbing over the gate, and my mother would be waiting on the other side, crying and thinking I was secretly a prostitute.”

“It was only when Theatreworks did Lao Jiu in the 90s, and the company wanted to have satay at the gala opening. I volunteered my parents to do it, and both my mother and stepfather came to the Drama Centre, made satay, and finally met my bosses Tay Tong and Ong Keng Seng,” she continues. “It was only then that they seemed to understand what I did at last. My mother never really questioned me after that, and when she saw me wear my track pants out, she would just say ‘DRAMA?’ I would nod, and she would understand. In a way, it’s unconditional love, and it’s something we often take for granted.”

2017 staging of Recalling Mother at OzAsia Festival in Adelaide

While neither Claire nor Noorlinah are mothers themselves, across their career, both women have developed maternal instincts nonetheless, just as a mentor to the ever-growing population of young artists, than to actual children of their own. “When we did our postgraduate studies overseas, there would be American classmates that were so conscious that this is their culture and history, the giants that came before them, and I find it sad that we don’t think of it the same way, these people who came before us,” says Claire. “We’ve been wanting to have more of this kind of mentorship and nurturing approach to support all kinds of people over the years, and I’m happy that we’ve managed to educate and empower people with the ability to tell their own stories. And at this point in our career, with Checkpoint’s 20th anniversary season, I would like us to continue to mean so many things, as we nurture and mentor, create original stories and champion original voices.”

“When a young person tells me they want to go into theatre, I usually tell them to make sure they have other options as well, because acting cannot be done in an vacuum, and needs you to have more experiences and knowledge that will enrich you as a performer,” says Noorlinah. “In studying political science and sociology, I realised that art is life, and life enriches art, and to become a better artist, you have to keep opening doors.”

“Singapore is a country that forgets easily, and in Recalling Mother, we struggle with the process of remembering, and make an effort to recall, lest we forget,” she muses. “We erase a lot, tear down buildings, and we don’t do enough to celebrate the giants that came before us. The stories we tell now have rippling effects and layers of other stories that came before as well. We need to document all these stories, archive them properly and pass down the history to the next generation. Maybe that is a form of mothering.”

Photo Credit: Checkpoint Theatre

Recalling Mother: Her Lines, My Lines runs from 15th to 18th September 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Tickets available here

The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here

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