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This review contains spoilers for the film Room.
I have encountered two mothers this week. Unreal ones, although – as you will see – the distinction between real and unreal was blurred in both encounters. I experienced the first, “The Mother”, in Florian Zeller’s play of the same name at the Tricycle Theatre, and the second, “Ma”, in Lenny Abrahamson’s Oscar-nominated Room. “The Mother” and “Ma” have much in common. They both demonstrate the double-edgeness of motherhood, its joy and its claustrophobia. They both attempt to escape their realities in different ways, and both, in doing so, are delivered to a hospital bed, their children by their sides. They cannot escape the fact of birth. This mothering role is theirs forever.
In The Mother, Gina McKee’s eponymous character (formerly known as Anne) experiences snapshots of alternate realities. In one scene, her husband is a liar and womanizer; in another, it is her son’s sexuality she confronts. They joke and argue and are silent, the same stretch of time replaying itself repeatedly in “The Mother”‘s mind. These moments are layered over each other, creating, in director Laurence Boswell’s words, a “kind of theatrical cubism” in which subjective experience is given equal weight with reality. The scenes grow darker as “The Mother” consumes an overdose of sleeping pills and scrutinizes her relationships with her husband (Richard Clothier), son (William Postlethwaite) and ‘The Girl’ (France McNamee – who appears in several disquieting incarnations as Anne’s son’s girlfriend, her husband’s lover and her youthful mirror image). The effect, in Boswell’s words, is a “story… built upon states of collapsing consciousness”.
Abrahamson’s Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name, shares with The Mother this unflinching dissection of motherhood. It is the story, focalized through the perspective of five year old Jack, of a mother and son held captive in a garden shed; “Ma” has lived in this state of imprisonment for seven years. In this depiction of the parent-child relationship, the consciousness touched on by Zeller has long since collapsed and has been resurrected in a different guise. Ma and Jack share a world – “Room”. They have a television, which transmits to them “unreal” images; for Jack, “Plant is real but not trees” and “squirrels and dogs are just TV”. The faith Jack has in his subjective reality is endearing. His world is not a room or the room, but “Room”: treated as reverently as, say, the Pevensies’ “Spare Oom” in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (and the similarities between the stories – the foray into other realities, the hardship of having to grow up – are worth noting). Jack’s understanding of his existence is challenged shortly after his fifth birthday, when he is forced to confront the idea of an outside world (“When I was small I only knew small things,” he says, “but now I’m five I know everything”).
Donoghue, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, is keen to highlight the disparity between Jack’s version of his childhood and Ma’s. The pair of them revisit “Room” towards the end of the film; “Has it gotten shrinked?”, Jack asks, while Ma waits uncomfortably by the door. For Jack, “Room” represents an entire universe, replete with friends (“Rug”, “Lamp”, “Meltedy Spoon”) and the constant security of his mother’s presence. “Wasn’t it awfully small?” his grandmother asks him. No, he responds: “It went in every direction all the way to the end. It never finished. And Ma was always there.” For Ma, it is a confinement both literal and metaphorical. The inescapability of her role as mother is echoed in her physical entrapment.
Zeller’s play is particularly good not only on the claustrophobia of child-rearing, but the claustrophobia, for the child, of being parented. “The Son”, in his many incarnations, is impatient, emotionally unresponsive, and even murderous. Sylvia Plath’s ugly imperative in her poem about her mother, “Medusa” – “Off, off, eely tentacle!/ There is nothing between us” – is not far from our minds as we watch “The Son”‘s interactions with his mother.
The “evil mother” is a recurring figure in theatre – we need look no further than Medea or Lady Macbeth for clear examples of this cold-blooded breed. What feels more interesting is the loving mother who struggles with the intensity of this love. Here, Zeller and Donoghue excel. And with their example in mind, we can revisit other mothers, mothers who have long been consigned to a state of two-dimensionality. Take, for instance, Austen’s Mrs Bennet. She is overbearing, manipulative, “invariably silly”. Elizabeth suffers on account of her behaviour. But were we to employ the “cubism” Zeller demonstrates and reconsider the events from an alternative perspective we might think differently.
How dreadful, from this new perspective, must life with Lizzy Bennet be! To be constantly quashed and silenced; your identity reduced to nothing but “schemes”, “invention”, or “mean understanding”, to list just a few of the words ascribed to Mrs Bennet. Of all her daughters, Lizzy is the most challenging to her mother. One sentence gives us the measure of their relationship: “In vain did Elizabeth endeavour to check the rapidity of her mother’s words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper.” To have your words checked, your felicity subdued – no wonder the “business of [Mrs Bennet’s] life was to get her daughters married”.
I’m being facetious, of course, but I think there’s something worth examining here. The subjectivity of the story-telling in both The Mother and Room is interesting, especially when applied to the difficulties which parenting brings. Helen Simpson’s short story “Heavy Weather” interrogates this darker side to motherhood: “She had taken to muttering I can’t bear it, I can’t bear it, without realizing she was doing so until she heard Lorna chanting I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it! as she skipped along beside the pram, and this made her blush with shame at her own weediness.” Echoing this, Eva Wiseman wrote touchingly on the challenge of this new emotion in The Guardian last year, describing it as “an awful love. A terrible love… It’s not the comforting bath of love I’m used to. It’s a bruise being pressed, continually, by a strong thumb”.
There is a complexity in this feeling which a splintered narrative such as Zeller’s conveys well. It is an original way of grasping the many-sidedness of family relationships; with Zeller as our guide we are no longer in the black-and-white ethical world of Elizabeth Bennet, or, say, Roald Dahl’s Harry Wormwood (who memorably tells Matilda, “I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it”). Rather, this cubist take on parent-child relationships offers us a refreshing re-examination of what the role of mother means.
The Mother continues at the Tricycle Theatre until March 12. Room is currently on general release.