Reflections on aging and mortality in the latest version of this ‘living play’.
Originating as a simple idea where Claire Wong and Noorlinah Mohamed simply wanted to share stories of their mothers, over the last 16 years, the two theatremakers have managed to perform their show Recalling Mother across multiple iterations and across multiple countries, each version seeing the play grow and evolve alongside them.
In this latest edition, commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay for their 2022 The Studios series, Claire and Noorlinah recognise that a lot changes in 16 years, or even the 6 years since they last performed it. Not only has the world experienced a global pandemic, but both women have now become caregivers to their mothers, alongside their own bodies ageing and no longer as invincible as they once thought they were.
Recalling Mother, in this edition, thus becomes a much more reflective piece, the two friends still sharing stories, but laced with considerations over the mortality of both their mothers and themselves, while wistfully looking back on the past. This process begins on a relatively light-hearted note – Claire recalls happier days when she and husband Huzir holidayed in Hong Kong with her mother, while Noorlinah recalls the bond she and her mother shared in childhood, even her integral role in choosing her own stepfather. The two are all smiles, sharing tea and kueh lapis, before delving into more memories of their mother’s recipes and their penchant for cooking – Noorlinah in particular exudes a manic joy at how she diligently copies down the steps in shorthand, in a CHIJ exercise book.
But at some point, the play takes a turn for the darker, as both women begin sharing the more tenuous moments they have with their mothers. From inexplicable bursts of raw emotion, to fights that are born out of fear of losing each other, both Claire and Noorlinah enter a far more vulnerable state as they lay it all onstage. In one instance, Noorlinah recalls the funeral arrangements made for her stepfather, and how her mother, in the throes of dementia, struggles to make sense of what Noorlinah tells her about the process. In another, Claire lashes out at the absurdity of a bank forcing her mother to come down in person to deal with a transaction, only to stumble down an escalator and suffer severe injuries, while Noorlinah physically rolls down the sloped set. It is devastating.
What makes Recalling Mother such a powerful piece is how Claire and Noorlinah hold nothing back. There is raw energy and emotion in their performance, an act of re-presenting, as they channel their very real feelings towards their mothers and their memories and put it onstage for the audience to witness. They switch from English to their mother tongues of Malay and Cantonese, embodying their own mothers by speaking their words, and almost become them for a moment. Each memory is a fully-formed story, no matter how short, bringing it to life via evocative language and sincere delivery. It is a living play after all, and that life comes from the love both women put into it.
Throughout the play, Elizabeth Mak’s multimedia plays a key role in elevating and bringing out Recalling Mother’s key themes. Footage of past productions of Recalling Mother is projected onto screens and frames curtained with frayed black thread, juxtaposing the Claire and Noorlinah of years gone by, with the Claire and Noorlinah of the present day. Each video has been carefully cut and timed to present only the most significant of monologues; often doing the work for Claire and Noorlinah, who stand by before the sound cuts, and they speak again to comment on how much they’ve changed. There is a clear visual difference in age between the footage and live performers, the energy and mood far subtler, tranquil and still in present day, no more running about the stage or raising their voice.
This hits especially hard when they begin to think about their own ageing bodies, how falling off a bike results in a broken rib, and the fear that this is just the first of many to come. Again, this also segues smoothly from a conversation surrounding their own mothers taking falls, and how upset they become watching their mothers do it out of stubbornness, a refusal to admit that they are weak, to keep living despite being told that being confined to a room, to their bed is best for them. The guilt they feel during COVID, when they cannot physically be with each other, or the helplessness they experience knowing that their time together is limited by lifespan.
By the end of Recalling Mother, Claire and Noorlinah have displayed a range of complex emotions towards their mothers and themselves, presented through a series of vivid memories and stories equal parts joyous and heartbreaking. The show ends with a projection of their mothers’ ‘resumes’, stating their interests and their skillsets, neither one formally educated yet accomplished and magnificent in their own ways. Claire and Noorlinah ensure that their mothers are remembered, but in speaking their full names and through this performance, no longer are their legacies simply limited to their immediate families, but now, every audience member they touch, allowing us to acknowledging their existence, and celebrate them in all their glory, for as long as this play continues to live.
Photo Credit: Checkpoint Theatre
Recalling Mother: Her Lines, My Lines ran from 15th to 18th September 2022 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio.
The Studios 2022 – Nervous System runs from 24th July to 24th September 2022 at The Esplanade. Tickets and full lineup available here