Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A grotesque and unsettling play about dark issues
Three women sit around a kitchen table, talking over tea and cake, while a religious event plays on TV in the background. It's a modest and somewhat peculiar home with a striking green and black checkered floor. Empty picture frames adorn the wall which Erna, the hostess, hopes one day to fill with pictures of her future grandchildren. Erna, thrifty and religious, frets about her unmarried son. Her friend Grete, by contrast, indelicate and practical, consoles herself about her daughter's abandonment by obsessing over her dog instead. The third woman, Mariedl, who appears to be the sweetest and most devout of the lot, has never had children and instead focuses on the great pride she takes in her expertise of unblocking clogged toilets with her bare hands.
Holy Mothers (Die Prasidentinnen) by Austrian playwright Werner Schwab, translated into English by Meredith Oakes, is a complex and layered work about dark issues. The lives, conversations, fantasies, and actions of these three retired cleaning ladies are meant to be a sharp criticism of family and religious values, especially Catholicism. It's an uncomfortable work, designed to frequently shock and distress the audience into serious reflection. It is grotesque and surreal, especially in the second half, as the three women drown themselves in alcohol and in their vivid and intense fantasies, and move towards the play's gruesome climax. It relies on a deep preoccupation with scat, and to a lesser extent sex, violence, and abuse, to achieve its impact.
The Australian premiere of Holy Mothers at La Mama Courthouse, directed by Andre Bastian and performed by Alice Bishop, Helen Doig and Uschi Felix, was a difficult experience in a number of ways. Schwab's original script is reportedly a hard one to translate, and the version I watched was unfortunately not compelling. I suspect I would have missed some of the foundational information - such as the fact that all three women (and not just Mariedl) were retired cleaning ladies - if I had not read the show description beforehand. The criticism of Catholicism, and the commentary on other political and cultural elements, was vague (either that or it presumed prior knowledge that perhaps I didn't have access to as an outsider to the culture in which this play is set). This made several parts of the play confusing for me, including the first fight scene, which was also unconvincingly choreographed. The overall pace of the play was unsteady and it had few of the kind of anchoring moments that could help the audience get truly invested. However, the most confronting element was the play's treatment of all three women, reducing them to caricatures whose voices did not sound like their own, but of outsiders who might condescendingly see them as this play depicts. This was especially true of Mariedl, who appeared to experience some form of intellectual impairment, who I simply could not make myself laugh at (or with), because it felt wrong. Perhaps some of this was intentional, perhaps it was part of the shock value of this work -- if so, it succeeded.
This is not to fault the performances in any way. Alice Bishop's Erna, Helen Doig's Grete and Uschi Felix's Mariedl were all high-quality performances, even if stylistically disconnected from each other. Felix, in particular, was often mesmerizing and succeeded in rousing strong emotion in a number of scenes (most notably, in her unsettling performance of Mariedl's fantasy of being up to her armpits in poop to unclog toilets that revealed hidden treasures). Doig's thunderous stage presence and Bishop's dignified clarity provided great contrast to each other, perhaps a bit too much contrast at times, but it was mostly effective. But these good performances were unfortunately not quite enough to make this show an overall rewarding experience.