The word ‘mother’ hangs heavy over Grace, the first show to reopen St Kilda’s Red Stitch Theatre in 2022, even when the word is barely spoken. Not too dissimilar in tone from The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut on the big screen starring Olivia Coleman – Katy Warner’s insightful and potent new play tackles forbidden territory. What of the women who do not see motherhood as their destiny? What of those that chose that path and regretted it? What of the daughters who were left behind?
This fraught territory, so-oft depicted in dark fairy tale form as the way of a wicked witch, writhes in an extraordinary way around Warner’s work. Kate Cole, a founding member of the Red Stitch ensemble returning to the fold after some time away, plays Emma, a children’s book author struggling with writers’ block, with a great deal of empathy. Checking into a fabulous hotel in Copenhagen with her mother in tow (played with towering authority and somewhat hilariously withering scorn by the magnificent Jillian Murray), Emma will be presented with the Hans Christian Andersen Award for young fiction. And yes, that world-famous Danish author’s tragic short, The Story of a Mother, does rate a mention, as does the Disney adaptation of his considerably darker take on The Little Mermaid.
Only her mother would much rather they were in Paris, that Emma would choose a better dress and that she’d present better when interviewed on the national news. Pick, pick, pick she does, pulling at the corners of Emma’s already frayed nerves. And then the previously unannounced Grace (Mia Tuco) arrives at the door full of abundant enthusiasms and a determination to celebrate Emma’s achievements, sitting alongside her nan (Murray) in the audience. Only Emma doesn’t want her there.
Warner’s script, developed through the Red Stitch INK new writing program, plays coy about the exact relationship between Grace and Emma. But the import of the chasm between them and their inability to connect emotionally speaks volumes. Though this three-hander is entirely contained within a hotel room realised with a minimalist touch by designers Jacob Battista and Sophie Woodard, acclaimed director Sarah Goodes – marking her Red Stitch debut – holds us captive. We are enthralled by what is at once a profoundly theatrical experience, but one that also feels somehow cinematic.
Cole, like Olivia Coleman, is a commanding presence who can grant us access to Emma’s roiling inner turmoil, even as her lips purse and refuse to say what she feels. Murray, too, is incredible to behold as this intergenerational tussle rumbles like thunder without any actor once raising their voice. When Grace announces her writerly aspirations and reveals a book deal for a novel, Tuco steps into the fray with her head held high, shifting from enthusiastic booster to implied rival in the shifting sands of Warner’s adept work, as gracefully navigated by Goodes. Even when things are most likely to explode, there are sublime moments of sisterhood stitched into the piece. When Emma, flustered, puts herself down, noting that she only writes out talking animals, Grace points out that so did George Orwell.
Men only exist here as literary titans long gone. Ghosts by which Emma judges herself. Should she sell her stories to the commercial beast that is Disney’s happy-clappy machine? What would Grace or Emma’s mother make of that? Don’t worry; they’ll let you know. A forthright work that negotiates difficult terrain with sure footing, I really do hope to see it shapeshift onto the screen, like so many of Andersen’s tales. Gyllenhaal would surely relish the challenge?