Holy Mothers

Werner Schwab, translated by Meredith Oakes
Pleasance Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

An Austrian who trained as a sculptor and worked as a woodcutter, Schwab was born in 1958. This was his first play, produced in 1990, and he wrote at least twelve more plays before his death four years later aged 35. He has been described as a coiner of new words, which does not make him easy to translate, and his work is said to be full of violent images and degradation.

I had never seen his work and he is little known here, although the translation being performed here was published by Oberon in 2000 and produced the year before by the Royal Court at the Ambassadors Theatre; his The Chair Women was seen at Riverside in 2004. He is said to be widely performed in German language theatres where this piece is apparently hailed as a modern masterpiece.

The director, Vanda Butkovic, who is from Croatia, writes in the programme that she wanted "to explore how the London audience, famous for their open-mindedness and sense of humour, handle this dark comic text." Well, it did get some laughs and the audience applauded at the end but probably more for the effort made by the performers than in recognition of a masterwork!

From the start her production indicates that it is not aiming at realism with a table and chairs set on a circular carpet of white feathers in front of a blow-up of an alpine scene. The three women who are its main protagonists enter pulling themselves on their bellies along the audience aisle (where only those on the end of the rows are likely to be able to see them), but most of their behaviour is much like gossips on a British soap.

We appear to be in the house of thrifty Erna (Hilary Burns), a rather proper lady with an Irish accent and her hair done up in a topknot, who knows where to buy the cheapest liver sausage. She and twice-widowed Greta (Carol Robb), a huge woman with fake champagne blonde hair, take the chairs. The third, Mariedl (Sarah Calver), perhaps younger and certainly treated as their inferior, takes up a position crouching under the table. They are watching a priest, perhaps the Holy Father, on the television.

Apparently they are devout Catholics for they talk of the Pope and the Virgin Mary but their main conversation is of defecation and copulation (the formal words are theirs, not mine) and they go into explicit detail about what gets passed through and where whose fingers go). One speaks of a son who doesn't copulate, the other of courtship sex with her man growing stiffer and stiffer but there is nothing erotic about this depressing scatology. I thought it was the British who were supposed to be into lavatory humour but I found it remarkably unfunny, though I did like the way Mariedl explained how she liked shit when a stool is 'smooth, warm, soft and fresh'. That is just as well for her skill in life is unblocking toilets. She's been in the best houses to supply this service, done with her bare hands, and in great demand at the priest's. Sarah Calver's demonstration of her work - a stylized crouching stoop with a cupped hand and an arm bent like a lacrosse stick is the best thing in this production as she describes how she clears a succession of blockages. First there is a tin of Hungarian goulash (unopened), then a bottle of beer (ditto), and a finally a phial of French perfume. She opens and consumes them all with relishes, though they mix unhappily when they reach her stomach.

The other two don't like this upstart commandeering the conversation so slit her throat and cut her head off, dabbling their fingers in her blood to taste it. Oh, and that's not all. As what seems a total non sequitur we get a prancing Madonna shaking a single maraca in a cabaret number.

Even the human unblocker is consciously clever rather than funny, and the gore does not have the shock-horror of Grand Guignol. Perhaps it is hilarious to read and you might have thought flat realistic playing would have made it more horrible - but it doesn't. Perhaps with characters performed as painted automata might make it worth but frankly it really isn't worth the effort that this cast and director have put into it. Not everything written while drunk is a work of genius - and certainly not this! But do feel free to disagree.

At Pleasance Theatre until 10th May 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton