Naoise Murphy is impressed by CTC’s powerful production of ‘Motherland’.
Motherland, by Steve Gilroy, is a contemporary piece of verbatim theatre made up of interviews with ordinary women, whose lives have been touched in some way by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is honest, raw and truly harrowing; perhaps one of the most intense pieces of theatre I have ever experienced. Director Kate Barton and every member of the cast and crew are to be commended.
The interviews collected in the play were conducted with women in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Sunderland, Northumberland and Durham. This relevance to the local area could have been handled badly, taking into account the rather strained student-local relationship and the complete ignorance of many students about life in the North-East. However, I believe the production team carried it off.
The play felt like a learning experience, not only for the audience, but for the cast. Most of the accents were good (at least to my ear – though you might want to ask a local!) and each performance was nuanced and sensitive.
The cast’s engagement with the audience was excellent throughout. I genuinely felt like the characters were speaking directly to me.
This often made the experience quite uncomfortable, which is, in fact, one of the key words I would use to describe this play. It was filled with difficult, searching questions and emotional trauma. The script maximises audience discomfort by presenting uncomfortable combinations of characters on stage together; a mother whose son has come home from the war with one whose son has died, a young, as-yet-hopeful girlfriend with another grieving mother.
The atmosphere becomes more and more unpleasant in the final scenes. Throughout the interviews, our emotions are assaulted on all sides by talk of injury, illness, separation, anxiety and violent death; hence, the highly-charged final scene is simply devastating.
I did find my attention wandering a little in some of the longer scenes, but by the end I was utterly enthralled.
Fantastic use of the set, combined with a perfectly selected slideshow and video clips and the astounding intensity of every single performer, left me numb. The appropriate military metaphor of bombardment encapsulates the experience of the audience.
In the programme, we are asked to remember that every word spoken on stage is ‘real’. All of the actors did justice to the naturalism of the script, with only a few incidences where the dialogue felt slightly too theatrical. Standout performances, for me, were Ellie Gauge, Eleanor George and Louisa Mathieu.
The inclusion of a silent male ‘soldier’ character, played by Liam Hesketh, was also interesting. His every entrance brought about a shift in the tone of the scene, and his presence seemed to mean something different each time. His silence was gratifying, emphasising the importance of this play for giving the women around him an opportunity to speak. Yet despite this, his power and stage presence were undiminished, perhaps a comment on the uneven power relations between genders in contemporary Britain. Even though it focused on the women, their lives, opinions and feelings, the entire play in fact revolved around him.
Motherland makes clear that it is not a mouthpiece for any particular campaign, and presents a myriad of different views on the conflict.
Nevertheless, its message is adamantly pacifist.
We encounter a large cast of characters, each representing countless more people, whose lives have been destroyed by war. They are vocal and decided, demanding our recognition. Every last drop of empathy is squeezed from us, and we end the evening almost desensitised to the horror.
This play is a seriously impressive product of four weeks of rehearsal. I can’t recommend it as a pleasant night out at the theatre, but in artistic terms it’s an undoubted success.
Image: George Rexstrew