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Ben Wishart, Duncan Luke, Ricky Samai and Ryan Rowland, Sons & Mothers Ben Wishart, Duncan Luke, Ricky Samai and Ryan Rowland, Sons & Mothers
photo Alex Frayne
“What makes someone a mother?” is the not-as-facile-as-it-sounds question deviser and director Alirio Zarvarce puts, over and over again, to the members of the No Strings Attached Men’s Ensemble in Sons & Mothers. The answers are as disparate as the members themselves, indicative of personality and perception, but also of the difficulty any of us might face in reaching beyond the purely physiological to describe what is for many sons the most elemental relationship in their lives.

In the theatre

Damien Turbin, whose mother was told upon his birth by doctors that he would never be able to walk, talk or eat, expresses a thought at once universal and profoundly personal when he says that a mother is “someone to look after us.” In a short video interview, Ben Wishart literally writhes with the effort to communicate a perhaps incommunicable idea to Zavarce, before silencing his persistent interviewer with a serenely pragmatic, “She just is.” Later, under the lo-fi glare of an overhead projector, Wishart traces the outline of a photograph of his parents with a marker pen; a moment of unusual stillness in a show which abounds with raw energy and imprecisely articulated feeling.

Each member of the ensemble, following an incongruously focus-drawing monologue by Zarvarce, becomes the subject of a ‘piece’ which investigates the performer’s relationship with his mother. Kathryn Sproul’s set—warm and homely, and faded around the edges like the old family photographs which are periodically projected onto the back wall of the Space—provides a sort of environmental foil for the performers as they step out of its dusty crannies and temporarily into the spotlight, ushering the past into a viscerally alive present.

Among the first, and best, of the pieces is by Ryan Rowland who, with a wicked mock rock god stare, plugs in his electric guitar and intones an acerbic set of lyrics about his medically complicated birth as juddering power chords ring out. Ricky Samai’s entrance into the world was similarly problematic, having remained in what he calls a “human crib” for days after his birth. A Torres Strait Islander, Samai’s piece is the most richly physical, infused with figures and gestures characteristic of traditional Islander dance. His journey throughout the hospital (he was born in Adelaide) is mapped out across the floor of the theatre, surefooted but loose-limbed, his monologue laden with echo in a suggestion of institutional space as well as the easy travel of the past.

At such moments, Sons & Mothers pushes the boundaries of its remit, its focus on mother-son relationships pulling back to take in more generalised and familiar discourses around disability. Its disciplined dramaturgy, nevertheless, and the fearless storytelling instincts of the ensemble, guarantee the success of the whole.

Ben Wishart, Sons & Mothers Ben Wishart, Sons & Mothers
photo Alex Frayne

On film

The curiously capitalised feature documentary SONS & mothers, by Queensland-born but now Adelaide-based filmmaker Christopher Houghton, is a remarkable behind-the-scenes document of the creation of the production which (almost) shares its name. Told mostly in stark, tightly framed close-ups (cinematography Aaron Gully and Maxx Corkindale), the film covers a period of about 12 months out of the stage show’s three-year development, the culmination of which was a world premiere at Adelaide’s Queen’s Theatre during the 2012 Fringe Festival. Houghton does not, however, dwell on the success of that premiere, footage of the triumphal opening night constituting a brief and indistinct coda only.

The tone, established from the opening scene in which long-time No Strings Attached member Kym Mackenzie vigorously removes his stubble with an electric shaver, is intimate rather than expansive. In a later scene, which takes place during one of the show’s three creative developments, the emphasis remains close and exclusive as Mackenzie’s description of his deceased mother brings tears to his eyes. Where Sons & Mothers is exuberant and irreverent, Houghton’s documentary is muted and at times elegiac, the camera unendingly hovering over the external manifestations of painful inner lives and unquenchable personal crises.

The worst of these is that experienced by Abner Bradley, the brilliant but profoundly mentally ill multi-instrumentalist whose internal schisms ultimately lead to his self-excision from the project. The scenes which depict the first stages of his mental collapse as they occur on the rehearsal room floor are disturbing, but the effect is partly and happily neutralised by later, exquisite moments in which we witness Bradley at peace in a music therapy room, then at home with his mother.

In the latter, nothing much happens—cigarettes are shared over a few inconsequential pleasantries—but something of the essence of the mother-son duality everybody has been trying to get at reveals itself: unaffected, unspoken, an ontology both ordinary and extraordinary that perhaps takes the confidence of film, rather than the artifice of theatre, to authentically uncover.

No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, Sons & Mothers, writer, deviser, director Alirio Zavarce, performers Joshua Campton, Duncan Luke, Kym Mackenzie, Ryan Rowland, Ricky Samai, Damien Turbin, Ben Wishart, Alirio Zavarce, designer Kathryn Sproul, lighting David Gadsden, music Mario Spate, AV designer Eugenia Lim, movement Aidan Kane Munn, Space Theatre, 17-26 Oct; SONS & mothers, director Christopher Houghton, POP Pictures, Adelaide Film Festival 2013

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 5

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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