Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Mother's Field

Based on the story by Chinghiz Aitmatov
Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre
Barbican Pit

Chinghiz Aitmatov (1928-2008), a Soviet-Kyrgyz writer who wrote in both Russian and his native tongue, was highly-regarded in the Soviet Union, but is little known in the West unless you are a student of Russian and Soviet literature. The period he lived through, Stalin’s harsh rule (his father was executed in 1938 for “bourgeois nationalism”) and The Second World War, inform his poignant short stories and novellas full of experience he must have felt on his own skin, as they say.

His writing is moving, evocative, tender, and his 1976 (the version I read) novella Mother’s Field (Materinskoye Polye), dedicated to his parents, tears at the heart. I wept shamelessly reading it. But, the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre has decided in its wisdom to give us “a play without words”. Maybe the Mother’s suffering is too much to bear. But it needs to be told.

Presented for one evening only in the Pit’s small space, whilst The Good Person of Szechwan plays in the large Barbican Theatre, characters' names obliterated (they do have names in the story), a tableau vivant unfolds. But, what is it all about? Difficult to know, I’d say, if one doesn't know the story, but how to un-remember such a tale of woe, all the more powerful for its fusion of stark realism and folkloric pantheistic mysticism.

The Mother, Tolganai, a simple, loving woman, confides her sorrows to Mother Earth, no one else to tell it to now, telling her the story of her life and the evolution of her village from simple ways (there is much sowing of the land dancing) to collectivisation, new ways with tractors, literacy, and the war that so cruelly took away the men, all her men in particular. Bullets rain down on a bitter harvest.

A skylark she was called, who found her true love, had three sons and a daughter-in-law (the eldest son’s wife) and lost them all, husband and sons to war and Daughter-in-law in childbirth. She is left holding her grandson. She must struggle on, what else can she do...?

This she confides to the impassive figure in brown sitting opposite her on the stage, reading a book. The book of life? Mother Earth’s (Inna Kara-Mosco) cold expression never changes, she’s seen it all before: she merely walks amongst them, handing out bullets, dusting them with flour, brushing the sheepskins. Anna Karmakova’s Mother’s face, on the other hand, far too young even when she stoops and shuffles, is beautiful and beautifully expressive, her eyes mirrors to her soul.

Anastasia Panina is also radiant as Daughter-in-law. Both are dressed in fabulous national costumes. The men are harder to present. The Middle Son is bookish, that we get (he’s a teacher in the book), and he too gets a bullet as a bookmark, the husband (Sergey Miller) a fine muzhik.

Four bowls stand at the front, two of water, one of flour (in the book “bread is immortal; life is immortal; toil is immortal”) and one full of bullets. Stones signify hardship. Stones rip paper... A couple of multipurpose bench long tables on casters are wheeled around and another table serves for the final tableau of the four dead men (we know they are dead when they don black hooded robes) and lit as if for the final supper.

The soundscape (and rattled thunder metal sheets) replaces words, giving us the howling wind of the Kyrgyz steppes, the rumble of war, the screech of the train (the train on which the Mother hopes to see her Middle Son as it flies through the village—but how one is to know that without former knowledge…), the stamping jaunty dances, the wedding ritual.

Dance and physical theatre can be very expressive, but this story of many twists and turns has been of necessity pared down for this sixty-minute patchy performance of happy and not so happy times, hands over mouth in joy, in prayer and twisting in speechless anguish.

People of the former Soviet Union will know this story well, and inevitably there were many in the audience, but I fear much was lost. I urge you to read it. It can be found online in English and in Russian. It’s a capsule of what that vast country suffered in the twentieth century endured by one woman, endured by so many. What a price to pay. And all the while, Mother Earth is pokerfaced, even during curtain call.

Directed and choreographed by Sergei Zemlyansky, it is “a brave plea for peace and humanity”. It is about resilience and survival. Shattered by grief—how much can and should one person take—with the newborn (a stone) in her arms, she must go on. She will have to be mother, father and grandmother to him. She nods: I can do this.

Reviewer: Vera Liber