Mother Figures

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Selma Dimitrijevic and I first began talking about her play Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone almost three years ago. It’s been a long, meandering, stop-and-start conversation, via sitting in on rehearsals, watching performances and dress runs, chatting over coffee in various cafes in various cities. Aptly enough, Gods is also about those conversations that stretch over years: the well-worn family routines that regularly pause, rewind and restart.

The play’s history is even longer. Selma’s delicate depiction of one mother-daughter relationship was originally written as a commission for Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint series back in 2008. Across just four scenes, Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone (the title borrowed from John Steinbeck) suggests a lifetime’s worth of love and resentment between thirty-something Annie and her mother, their repeated small talk increasingly charged. It’s a small story, but one that reaches far beyond its two characters.

When it was produced at Oran Mor, Gods got what Selma describes as a “very naturalistic” treatment. Watching it, she felt that something was missing. “It was one of those things when you see a piece of work that you have made and there’s nothing you can say that is wrong with it,” Selma explains, “but the product wasn’t necessarily the kind of thetare that excites me. So I was looking at it and thinking ‘how did I help make this piece of theatre that I wouldn’t be that excited about as a theatregoer?’”

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

But it was only after encountering a Russian version of the play directed by Viktor Ryzhakov in 2011 that Selma thought of having a stab at it herself. Despite failing to get into the country to see it, Selma later got hold of a recording of the performance and found herself incredibly moved by it. “I saw a video of it and it just made me cry,” she remembers. “It went straight to the heart of what I was trying to do.” Ryzhakov cast two women of the same age as mother and daughter and contained them inside a pen for the length of the play, delivering the dialogue at high speed. Selma saw something in her play that went beyond domestic realism.

“Once I saw that, I thought actually I want to do my own attempt,” says Selma, explaining that her intention was to approach it “just as a piece of writing”. She got this opportunity through her company Greyscale, who were offered a spot in the 2012 Almeida Festival. Now, eight years after first writing the play, she tells me that the text of Gods feels oddly distant. “I kind of keep forgetting that I wrote it,” she laughs.

What’s most distinctive about Selma’s version of Gods – at least at first glance – is her decision to cast male actors Sean Campion and Scott Turnbull as mother and daughter. At the time when the Almeida Festival opportunity arose, Selma was working with the pair on Greyscale’s Theatre Brothel and something about their relationship resonated with the relationship in the play. It was, as she puts it, an artistic choice that came from the gut rather than the head.

“I’m a big believer, as a writer, that my subconscious is a better writer than I am,” Selma says by way of explanation. “So when things just come out, they’re usually much better than when I think about it. And the same thing as a director: I bring a lot of things into the rehearsal room that are instinctive. I can’t explain why.”

She’s been reluctant, therefore, to identify any intention behind the cross-gender casting, preferring to keep readings open. And while on the page this casting choice is what grabs attention, in performance it becomes almost irrelevant. Once accepted, the fact that these two female characters are being played by men seems perfectly natural. After all, theatre is always asking us to believe that one thing stands for something else. There’s no attempt by Sean and Scott to ape femininity; these are demonstrably two men, but also two women.

As I put it to Selma during that initial rehearsal period, the production’s non-naturalistic casting somehow frees it from the burden of specificity. Because these two men are clearly not attempting to represent two “real” women, the piece is allowed to speak through and with them, elevating it to something far more wide-reaching than the bare bones of the script might suggest. Discussing the casting now, Selma’s stance is simple and equivocal: “It just feels right, and as long as it feels right and interesting and exciting, and people react to it in an interesting way, we’ll keep doing it.”

Looking back on audience’s reactions to the casting during their latest tour, Selma draws attention to one response in particular. “This really interesting thing happened: there were a couple of men who mentioned that they don’t know if they would come and see it if it was just a show about a mother and daughter, and that they might not have connected with it personally if it was just a real mother and daughter and two actresses on stage. I don’t know how to feel about that.” It points to how, culturally, we still see narratives of female relationships as being aimed primarily at women, whereas narratives of male relationships are read as universal. As Selma puts it, “if it’s one, it’s a minority narrative, and if it’s the other then it’s for everyone”.

Other responses to Selma’s casting choice were more indignant. “A lot of people asked me how did the writer feel about me messing with their play,” she says, “which always makes me laugh.” For Selma, this complaint has a familiar ring, revealing much about the differing attitudes towards writers and directors in British theatre. “It feels a little bit like yes, you can do things to my play, but only if you do them well,” she continues. “Well of course, I wouldn’t be suggesting things otherwise. My intention is to do it well; I can’t promise I will.”

Selma’s other intriguing creative choice in directing Gods was to put a real mother and daughter on stage with Sean and Scott, quietly looking on from the back of the stage. Selma describes the pair as a kind of “amplifier” for the performance: “We’ve never had mother and daughter react in any emotional way if either audience or actors weren’t genuinely vibrating with emotion. But if it it is an emotional show, they make it a bit more emotional, and if it’s a funny one then them laughing on stage makes it even funnier.”

And although Selma insists that she doesn’t make “theatre with an agenda”, she has noticed over the life span of the show that it is also capable of making small changes in the lives of the mothers and daughters who take part. “They get to spend an hour looking at each other, talking to each other afterwards, as two adults, and see each other slightly differently after the show,” says Selma. Having lost her own mother before directing the play – “I’ve completely missed that opportunity” – these small moments of connection are particularly precious.

As much as Selma insists on the importance of instinct and chance in her work, with Greyscale she has been working hard over the last few years to give those instincts as much breathing space as possible. “It’s a combination of us being lucky,” she says of choices like the casting in Gods, “but also being good at creating circumstances in which things like that can happen.”

That means spending time together, sharing creative experiences, seeing other theatre. Selma explains that she, Sean and Scott have seen and talked about several shows together and have participated in a range of different workshops, giving them a shared toolkit and vocabulary. “We’ve filled the last twelve months with things for us to do together that have to do with art but don’t need a result and just allow space to be together and to talk about things,” she says. It is, she adds, “the poor man’s way of trying to do the ensemble thing”.

After three years of working on the play on and off, it’s now “properly like family”. Like the mother and daughter in her play, Selma and her team have a shared history, shared conversations and shared irritations – so much so that she suggests it’s barely acting for Sean and Scott anymore. “They’ve been repeating it for three years, so now when mother or daughter gets annoyed about things happening over and over again, they have it in their core, because they’ve done it so many times – they don’t have to pretend that they’re annoyed.”

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