The Theatre Royal, Bath, has another thought-provoking play on its hands with the staging (in the Ustinov, its smaller space) of The Mother by Florian Zeller in a new translation by Christopher Hampton. It's a companion piece to Hampton's translation of Zeller's The Father, played by that great British actor Kenneth Cranham, which the Ustinov staged last October and transferred to London's Tricycle Theatre.
Zeller, at 35, is one of the top French writing talents: both these pieces won the Moliere Award, the French equivalent of the Tonys. Both have as their central character somebody who is losing the plot, and we see the world from their point of view. In The Father, the protagonist's mind is being subsumed by dementia. In The Mother it is possibly a breakdown, or maybe Anne's daily cocktail of sleeping pills, Valium and alcohol, a deep depression borne of sadness and a longing for her youth. She's an empty nester with a possessive obsession for her son that seems to have alienated her daughter, her husband, and her son.
Gina McKee, one of the great British actresses of today, plays Anne with sang froid and believability, and is rarely off-stage. Still beautiful and stylish at 47, Anne spends her days alone at home, pining for her grown up son Nicholas (William Postlethwaite, son of the late, great Pete Postlethwaite, and a young actor to watch), who like his sister, has left home.
It's just before Mothering Sunday and Anne's handsome suited and booted husband Peter, (smoothly played by Richard Clothier), has packed his bag for a weekend conference in Leicester. Or is it a cover for an affair? We don't know. As Anne says 'Do they even have conferences in Leicester?' Either way the mundanity of their passionless marriage is apparent. The prodigal Nicholas returned late the night before. To Anne's delight, he's had a row with his beautiful girlfriend, whom Anne of course detests for taking away the light of her life. And this means that Anne won't be spending Mothering Sunday on her own.
But we are seeing this play through Anne's befuddled mind, so we're not quite sure if Nicholas really did return, if his girlfriend Elodie (Cara Horgan) visited, if Elodie really told Anne 'Of course he wants me. I'm young,' and left with Nicholas, or if her husband left with an affectionate colleague. The scenes replay again and again, subtly different each time, sometimes mundane, sometimes shocking, sometimes funny, as when Anne tells her husband 'You're a pathetic father, I've been meaning to tell you' in the most civil of ways. Horgan plays Elodie, the affectionate colleague, the paramedic, the daughter and the nurse. The ambulance men resemble her son and husband.
What we are sure of is that Anne was happy when the children were young: family breakfasts before walking them to school, carrying their satchels for them, clutching their small hands. She repeats it often. She was happily married, happily fulfilled, with purpose to her life. Then. But now she has nothing, and she's unraveling and taking us with her.
The deceptively simple set by Mark Bailey, a slightly wonky white box with a black abyss of a central doorway, works well. The cast pulls off a play that must be incredibly difficult to act with aplomb. McKee is mesmerising, and if – when – it transfers to the West End she's a shoe-in for an Olivier Award nomination.
The repetitious scenes with different outcomes create multiple realities, which all add to the obsessiveness of Anne's character. What is real and what is unreal? What really happened? Zeller leaves you to judge, as he seeks to remove terra firma from under the audience's feet. And yet at the end we are left wondering if Anne ever said anything out loud except 'would you like more coffee?'. Her thoughts speak out in the silence of her empty life, where she lives and screams in her head. To quote Pink Floyd 'quiet desperation is the English way.' Or in this case, the French way.