Fringe Review: Sons & Mothers

by Jane

Sons & Mothers: titles don’t get much more explanatory than that.  This show, quiet and simple, yet swelling with ideas, stories, heart, and, eventually, making our eyes swell with tears, is the stories of those relationships.  Seven sons tell the stories of their seven mothers, of childhood and adulthood and all the fun times and stumbles along the way.  These sons lovingly introduce us to their lives, their stories, and their mothers.

In 2005, director Alirio Zavarce returned to Adelaide from a visit to his mother in Venezuela.  The trip wasn’t a happy one: he had returned to say good-bye to his dying mother, a huge loss in his life, his family, and particularly in the life of his older brother who had been blind since childhood.  In Adelaide, he was comforted by the men he has worked with for many years through No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability’s Male Ensemble.  These men told him stories of their relationships with their mothers: some alive, some no longer with us, but always in their hearts.

From these conversations, Alirio and these men eventually built Sons & Mothers, a devised work sharing their lives and loves for their mothers.  For many of these men, Alirio tells us, the relationship with their mother is probably the closest relationship they will ever have with a woman.

The work is embodied not only with pathos, struggle, and great heart, but perhaps all the more importantly, with great humour.  They have demonstrated an acute understanding of how to play their audience (“Clipsal makes me angry” is proudly proclaimed by Duncan to the no doubt arty audience who has been putting up with the sound of hornets and road blocks), but also a want to show the joy and loves in their lives.  Some of these men have lost their mothers, they have all certainly faced (and will continue to face) discrimination and difficulties, but we are privileged enough to see them at their most joyous, doing something they love, and are good at: performing on stage, telling their stories, and sharing their loves and fears with an audience who are absolutely there along for the ride.

The seven men play their parts with confidence.  They present to us versions of themselves which are beautiful in their heart and earnestness.  They proudly stand up on the stage, saying this is me, this is where I come from, this is where I’ll go.  While they might be self-consciousness, we can’t see it.  While the show, the stories, and the men presented to us have been built over many months, and this work and precision shows through, the show gloriously lacks a bright and shiny polish. Here we are, it seems to say, love us or leave us. But love them we can’t help but do.

In the old Queen’s Theatre the exposed stone walls add to the history and lack of polish over the piece. Immaculately designed by Kathryn Sproul, with retro furnishings, old frames, projections giving us quotes, old family photographs, or videos of the mothers telling us their stories, it nonetheless delights in the true facets of the building. Standing for over 150 years, the history in the building adds to the rich histories of these men.

The men stand on stage and tell us their stories in the ways which are most comfortable to them. Kym lays a dress over a chair and shows us “this is how I was born”, wriggling along the floor crying out like a baby; Ricky dances a dance influenced by his Torres Strait Islander heritage with absolute concentration, as he carefully picks up flowers which exist only in his minds eye, but through his dedication exist in our eyes, too; Ryan plays his guitar, celebrating a love of rock music his mother doesn’t understand; Duncan tells us what makes him angry, as he is hidden under sheets from his friends in the show; Ben builds his story using photographs and drawings under a projector, story spoken through a recorded voice over; Damian shows us his wibble-wobble walk, and proudly demonstrates overcoming this, running around the space.

These moments of individual stories are built within a much larger framework which brings the seven men together, saying as many of their experiences – our experiences – are shared as are unique.   The show merges together theatre, dance, stand-up comedy, music, archival photography, and filmed interview footage to peel back the layers which form these beautiful and complex images of life and love between sons and mothers.

Through filmed interviews, we learn of the hardships many of these women went through in raising and keeping their sons: Ben’s mother, in particular, talks of how in the 60s it was expected that children with Downs Syndrome would be placed in a group home from the time they were six, if not before – being raised in “mainstream” society wasn’t presented as an option.  While we don’t get to meet these mothers personally, through their stories refracted through their sons and through the interviews of the mothers still with us, the show gives us a wonderful perception of their trials and their strengths.

But the show, also, doesn’t present these trials with rose coloured glasses, or even with acceptance.  The mothers are just as honest, but also just as jovial, with their heartbreak and anxieties as their sons.  Hard times are big, in ways of discrimination; and small, in the ways of men not cleaning their rooms, or listening to rock music too loud.   And then hard times are accepted, they’re acknowledged, they still go on, most often with a smile and a laugh.

In Sons & Mothers while the trials are detailed, the disabilities are often not: this is a show about the abilities of the performers, and their abilities as performers: touching, emotive, humorous, accomplished.

The production, while being of very personal stories, is also wonderful in its universality. Not everyone will be blessed to have such a close relationship with their mothers, but many of us are, and the work is a truly special occasion to reflect on that fact. On good times, and on bad times, our mothers are there for us, seeing us through.  What our mothers give us is a very special gift; and for those of us who were lucky enough to see Sons & Mothers, we also received a very special gift. A gift of story telling, a gift of beautiful performers, and a most wonderful gift of theatre.

No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability presents Sons & Mothers, direction and original concept by Alirio Zavarce.  Created and performed by Duncan Luke, Kym Mackenzie, Ryan Rowland, Ricky Samai, Damien Turbin, Ben Wishart and Alirio Zavarce. Set design by Kathryn Sproul.