I used to say I didn’t like ‘issues’ theatre.
I rarely use that sentence these days. Partly because I’m growing up good and proper now and find myself affected by more ‘issues’ and so am more endeared to theatre about them, and partly because when I really think about it that sentiment makes no sense. Some Other Mother made me process and realise this.
I’m trying to think of how to put into words what I meant. I think I always used it to mean the kind of things that beat you in the face with issues in a slightly awkward way. The way A-Level Drama handles drug abuse or whatever ‘theme’ is thrown their way that always ends up with a dance involving a lot of dramatic, slow fist clenching to dubstep. Looking at Harry Giles’ tweets, he uses the phrase ‘tragedy porn’ (to describe what Some Other Mother isn’t, but we’ll come back to that). ‘Tragedy porn’ might be the most accurate way I can think to describe what I mean.
Mess is about anorexia; Quiz Show plunges into paedophilia and sexual abuse; and Theatre Temoin’s The Fantasist deals with bipolar depression using puppets. These are some of my favourite shows from the last year, and they all deal with ‘issues’ and were amazing in the process. They are not ‘tragedy porn’ because they have enough heart, enough anger and enough relevance to real life to keep them haunting you well beyond their run time, rather than being weepy and wallowing because the subject let them write a good enough show description to sell tickets. But there are less extreme issues forming the bases of shows, because any topic can be an issue and any topic is theatrical fair game. So, I realised I must engage with issues in theatre, as this issue-y-ness is allowing theatre to engage with and reflect the world. That’s important stuff.
Some Other Mother takes a BIG issue: immigration. It is not tragedy porn.
I was not expecting to like it. I went on the spur of the moment: I had no plans for Saturday night and decided to see something. The Traverse offered me two choices, but Calum’s Road used the phrase ‘unhurried description’ in its copy so didn’t excite me. I found myself at Some Other Mother largely because Kieran Hurley was listed as part of the creative team and I think he’s ace.
I did like it, and the more I think about it the more my affection for it strengthens. It was engaging, pretty and abstract. I found it emotionally affecting, which is unusual given I normally only get upset by things aimed at children. I had to walk the long way home to give me adequate time to process why it had made me feel so melancholy.
While not an immigrant, I found all the issues umbrella’d by the BIG issue hit close to home: feeling lost, feeling patronized, feeling unwanted, feeling scared, losing your sense of identity, the mother-daughter relationship entangled with mental health problems, uncertainty and searching for escape from that uncertainty (in fact, I found it bizzarely paralleled my experience of university). If you’ll forgive the spoiler, Mama’s breakdown towards the end HURT because I felt so connected to the dynamic between the mother and daughter, built on the kind of love that is both necessary and damaging. This connection forces you to engage with the BIG immigration issue. Harry Giles puts it far better than I can: ‘you’re furious at the world they’re in, which is your world.’
If I’m honest I didn’t even understand all of it. Starr is 10 years old and lives in a rotting tower block in Glasgow. She and her mother, Mama, are waiting to hear whether they will be deported back to their own ‘broken’ country. Their difficulties are dealt with by a social worker who is well-intentioned in the slimiest of ways and a foul-mouthed Glaswegian who resides next door. There is also ‘Dog Man’ who growls on the count of three, initially introduced as a neighbour but who becomes an extension of Starr or her middle-aged imaginary friend. Their use of language and movement mirrors one another and it seems as though Dog Man often does what Starr wishes she could do or is on the brink of doing. I wondered if his erratic behaviour was supposed to reflect her frenzied mindset, or if his existence was supposed to suggest the psychological impact of living in constant uncertainty, or the need for companionship when Mama can no longer offer it. I don’t know. Starr also tells a story of an ancient albatross and its attempts to care for its young. She doesn’t remember how the story ends and so we never find out, presumably because she and her mother will be separated and so she will forget how she was cared for. Maybe. I cannot say what these things mean because I interpreted them in a way that reflected my own issues, the combination of which is unique to me. I don’t think it matters though, because the script and performances are mostly astounding and even without being sure how it all was meant to be interpreted I really cared.
Everything is an issue and all issues are a mess of other issues and our lives are just webs of issues. Some Other Mother has all the issues but is not an ‘issues’ play, because it pulls on your own problems enough to make you care about all its own issues, but doesn’t make you realise while you watch it that it is about issues and instead just feels like a solid, good show. It is personal enough to make you give a shit about wider politics without using this in a gimmicky way. It feels important afterwards but not while watching it, and it has made me excited to engage with theatre in a new way, as reflecting and responding to our world without being scared that it’s all just ‘issues’.