Someone reminded me that the title of Selma Dimitrijevic’s play is a quotation from Steinbeck’s East Of Eden. I started reading it about a year ago but didn’t get very far. There’s a bookmark in it, on page 22. The second sentence of chapter 2 on page 22 is “the gods are fallen and all safety gone”. This is exactly the page I got up to when I started reading the book in July last year. I know it was July because the bookmark is a cast list from the National’s Medea, and the sentence could almost be talking about Medea, describing the moment a child realises that “adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just”.
But that’s just coincidence.
Dimitrijevic’s play – four scenes, four simple conversations between a mother and daughter – takes that Steinbeck quote as a starting point for exploring the inexplicable relationship between parent and child, and confronting the moment when a child realises that its parents are fallible, mortal people.
Both mother and daughter are played by men. It’s easy to forget that an actor is playing someone of a different gender, but what the gender reversal seemed to show here was the universality of these experiences. It didn’t really matter that it was mother/daughter. It could just as easily have been father/son or any combination in between. Sean Campion’s performance makes the mother a distinctive character in her own right, but one that constantly hints at something universal. Except, who am I to say universal? Something relatable. At least to me.
That’s the trickiest thing about this: the relationships between parents and children are so completely personal and unique that it should be impossible to have a play that can universalise or generalise. But it spoke to me. And it spoke to the people I saw the play with. So do I want to accept that my mum or dad can be evoked by some writer or actor I’ve never met? That’s an admission that my parents are just people when I know they’re not *just* people. Or, maybe, I used to know that. But now I’m a bit older, now I see friends marrying and having children and trying to become gods themselves, now I am turning into some kind of adult and the gods are fallen. The safety is gone. The world opens up into a frightening expanse, a place where everyone is just pretending to know what they’re doing. Or, at least, I am.
There’s no set. Each scene starts with the same lines. Scott Turnbull, the daughter, puts on a different jumper for different scenes, but what are those scenes? Different moods? Different ages? Different depths of mutual understanding? Every conversation the daughter’s had with her mum condensed into a moment? Turnbull repeats a ritual each time he swaps his jumper: back to the audience, bow of the head, flattening hair down, moment of stillness; then onto the next scene. Maybe she’s taking some time to remember conversations she’s had with her mother; she might be trying to show how habitual life can easily become and how easy it is to slide into the same patterns when we talk to our parents; how quickly we regress to become petulant children. Or, at least, I do.
The patterns of conversation repeat in each scene, so that the audience comes to expect the same exchanges: one about the weather, one about the bath, one about Aunt Marie. It becomes almost mechanical: the daughter inputs terms, the mother outputs the expected response. Because we think we know how to play our parents. As though their reactions, as we’ve learnt from long experience, are predictable and we can choose to avoid tricky topics or deliberately provoke them depending on the mood we’re in and knowing the conversation that will follow.
What Dimitrijevic does so well is the way each of the lines is responded to by the other character. They’re not saying anything particularly special – the weather, the bath, Aunt Marie – but the responses these humdrum words provoke are where the meaning lies; not an individual line on its own, but the whole map of the conversation, the many repetitions and the slight variations in those repetitions. Only by existing among the other mundane lines does each of them become so crucial to that character.
So Dimitrijevic puts the simple act of daughter making cup of tea for mother at the end of the scenes, but as the play goes on it becomes clear just how much the act can mean, and has come to mean: it is consolation, or it is peace offering. It is generosity, or a convenient way to cut the conversation short and go into another room.
The simplicity of the words and the acts (and the design and direction) take on worlds of meaning. At the beginning, Campion and Turnbull are constantly moving around, pacing from one side of the stage to the other. By the end, they’ve slowed down and there’s an eternity of moments and hidden meanings between each line, so much unsaid in those silences. And they’ve stopped moving. And they’re sitting. And they’re listening to each other.
I kept thinking about The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics. ’Stilted conversations / I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got’: If we get that post-mortem, Pearly Gates videotape moment will we mourn that a lifetime of love and arguments was over in a flash?
The greatest moment, and the hardest moment, was when Turnbull took his bow. The final few lines he delivered were an emotional climax, during which he began to well up. And after the silence, the darkness, the curtain call he didn’t wipe the onstage emotions away and smile for the appreciative audience. He cried. Because, for those of us lucky enough to have parents, how can this not be about them? Forget the daughter and her mum – this is about you and your mum. Or, at least, me and my mum.
A man is standing two metres in front of me crying uncontrollably during the bit of the show where we’re all supposed to stop suspending our disbelief. Turnbull let his performance become…well, not performance. Who knows what he was thinking or feeling? For me, at least, it firmly, heart-wrenchingly insisted that the play is not a self-contained 80 minutes of performance that ceases to have meaning after the applause is over.
What does it mean that the ‘gods are fallen’? It means that they’ve lost their immortality. They were immortal as long as I didn’t have the capacity or the desire to understand what mortality is; those bright days before the many repetitious Larkinesque Aubade nights, my imagination refusing the notion of the finite, and yet unable to comprehend what infinity could mean. My mind blanking at the glare of death: their death, your death or, at least, mine.
Blames the one before
And all of their frustrations
Come beating on your door
It was not that long ago it first occurred to me
That my mother was a person in her own right