By Shelagh Stephenson
In art, as in life, few occasions provide more potential for conflict than a wedding or a funeral. Family funerals, in particular, bring together often estranged siblings in an emotionally charged atmosphere to share memories of the parent who shaped and influenced their lives. Inevitably, the past is picked over and resentments that have festered for years can finally come to the surface unpleasant and even poisonous in real life, but the very stuff of drama.
Australian playwrights have made effective use of this plot device in the past, memorably Hannie Rayson in Hotel Sorrento and Louis Nowra in Radiance. In each of these plays three sisters come together to bury a dead parent who is brought vividly to life in the course of their reminiscences. Their memories of their shared past, however, vary dramatically, as do the uses the women have made of these memories to construct their own lives.
The British writer Shelagh Stephenson also brings together three sisters on the eve of their mother’s funeral in The Memory of Water. For those familiar with the genre there are no surprises in discovering that there is a stay-at-home and responsible older sister (Teresa, played by Helen Howard), a successful career woman (Mary, played by Barbara Lowing) and an out-of-control younger sister (Catherine, played by Jodie Le Vesconte). The dead mother (Vi, played by Sally McKenzie) makes several appearances throughout the play, though visible to only one of her daughters.
The play is set in Yorkshire in mid-winter with a snowstorm raging outside. The entire action takes place in the dead mother’s bedroom where the sisters bicker and try to sort out funeral arrangements and their respective love lives. Teresa’s long-suffering husband (Peter Marshall) appears, as does Mary’s married lover (Paul Raynor), but Catherine’s Spanish boyfriend is only a voice at the end of a phone.
Both men turn in beautifully restrained and polished performances, but the play belongs to the women, who make the most of all the opportunities for comedy and pathos afforded them by the script. There are some very funny scenes such as when the sisters, fuelled by alcohol and pot, become again giggling girls ransacking their mother’s wardrobe for dress-up clothes. Each sister is also given the opportunity to reveal loneliness and loss, with Barbara Lowing in particular negotiating some very powerful moments.
Lowing’s character, Mary, seems at first the calm centre around whom the others move frenetically, and she brings a strength and solidity to the role that makes the subsequent revelations of her fragility all the more moving. Helen Howard’s Teresa is initially all Yorkshire common sense, but after a few drinks another side of her personality emerges, alternately comic and pathetic. Her morning-after recovery is an example of how skilfully this actress manages subtlety and understatement.
Jodie Le Vesconte has great fun with the zaniness of Catherine but might have made the character more three-dimensional by playing up the genuine insecurity beneath the attention-seeking behaviour. As the dead mother, Sally McKenzie magically brings to life the lonely, selfish woman who never liked other women, yet ironically produced three daughters, in whose lives she has left ineradicable traces.
It is a delight to see such a talented cast brought together for this play, which has been given an atmospheric set and lighting and sensitive direction by Leticia Caceres. All of this makes for an entertaining evening, partially masking what to me are some irritating flaws in the writing.
. The Memory of Water is Shelagh Stephenson’s first play written for the stage (she had previously worked in radio) and, to this reviewer, it shows. It doesn’t matter that the plot is formulaic if the characters are rounded, the setting well-established and the action moves along briskly. Though the female characters are distinctive, the men in this play are given very little differentiation (and it doesn’t help that these two actors look remarkably similar on stage!). Paul Raynor in particular had to work very hard to make anything of the shadowy Mike.
While we are told the play is set in Yorkshire and the cast (coached by Helen Howard) produce very creditable accents, there is no sense of place in this piece at all I can only surmise we are in the north of England so that the house can be cut off by a snowstorm. More importantly, there is no plausible reason why everyone should spend quite so much time in the deceased woman’s bedroom.
Though the storyline holds our interest, the writer could not resist the temptation to put in too many elements and rather too much verbiage. For example, there is a lengthy and totally out-of-character description of Alzheimer’s which is given to the mother right at the end of the piece, almost as an afterthought; and the disquisition on how water retains traces of whatever has passed through it (hence the title of the play) seems strained.
However, as a vehicle for actresses to show what they can produce, this play is a winner, and I’m all in favour of playwrights who can provide meaty parts for women.
The Memory of Water has won an Olivier award for best new comedy in 2000, has played in New York and the West End and been produced world-wide. It has also been made into a film (Before You Go), so a post-theatre visit to the video store might prove worthwhile.
Here’s a Trivia question for you: How many films and plays can you list that begin with people gathered for a funeral? I can think of quite a few The Big Chill, Last Orders …etc. etc. Can one count Hamlet? (Intriguing thought how might Hamlet have turned out if he’d had brothers to squabble with over the baked meats?) This is a rich vein for writers to mine and The Memory of Water is an interesting addition to the genre.
Directed by Leticia Caceres
Playing until 30 July 2005: Mon-Tues 6:30 pm, Wed-Sat 7:30pm, Wednesday matinees 1:00pm, Saturday matinees 2:00pm.
Running time: 2hrs 25 mins including 20 min interval