Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Noni Hazlehurst performs in Mother
Photograph: Brett Boardman

Noni Hazlehurst shines in this one-woman play inviting you to look below the surface

One of the things theatre does best is building our capacity for empathy. By giving us glimpses into lives that may be well outside our own orbit, it gives us ways of relating to people who we pass on the street but have no other involvement with.

Daniel Keene’s Mother a one-woman play written specifically for Noni Hazlehurst – is an exercise in empathy far gentler and more complex than you may initially expect.

Christie is a homeless woman looking back at her life and the point at which things disastrously fell apart. She was struggling with alcoholism at the time, but when she met a man she loved and fell pregnant, she thought things might start to turn around. Unfortunately her drinking only got worse and it placed enormous strain upon all her relationships. From this point, things snowballed out of control to the point that she was not allowed to see her son and she eventually became the dishevelled, possessionless, broken woman that we see on stage.

Although Keene’s concern is almost global – the scorn we pour on the most vulnerable people in our society – his writing is incredibly focused. In a way, Christie is representative of all the people we denigrate and pre-judge, but the play is an intimate and thoughtful character study. It never attempts to preach, but instead colours in the shades of grey for people like Christie. Exactly how much of her story is imagined and how much is inspired by real stories of real people isn’t too important here: the play simply challenges us to consider the complexities of our society that we may choose to forget.

The writing is an absolute pleasure to listen to – Keene effortlessly melds language that feels everyday and pedestrian with language that reaches towards the more poetic and sublime. And every element of director Matt Scholten’s production (particularly Tom Willis’s lighting, which eerily suggests the streets of any Australian suburb) serves to support and highlight the language.

Hazlehurst has been touring on and off with Mother for two years and picked up a Helpmann nomination for her performance. With all that time on the road, she’s now completely under Christie’s skin – the performance is entirely transformative and you can never really glimpse the Hazlehurst who Australians are so familiar with from her decades of acting and presenting. Christie speaks in a strangely melodic, almost ritualistic sing-song fashion; like she’s learnt the melodies and the rhythms through which to express herself and her stories to the wider world. She also appears incredibly fragile, shuffling slowly around the stage with her hand frequently shaking.

There are aspects of Hazlehurst’s characterisation early on that don’t feel quite as fresh as you’d hope – perhaps a result of having so many performances under her belt – but when she reaches the play’s tragic conclusion she conjures up extraordinary pain and trauma. It’s only a 70-minute play, but to maintain such intensity for each performance is an impressive feat.

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