The Memory of Water
Writer: Shelagh Stephenson
Director: Rachel Chant
The Ensemble Theatre
October 25 – November 25, 2023
Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 prize-winning play The Memory of Water is surprisingly relevant as it explores the influence, actual or imagined, of a mother upon the future lives of her children. When three sisters come together ahead of their mother’s funeral, the unhappiness each of them carries reaches crisis point as memories resurface and secrets are revealed. While their bickering is exceptionally funny, and their individual characters completely absorbing, the issue of who is to blame for their unhappiness remains, wisely, unresolved.
The three daughters undoubtably feel that their mother Violet (Nicole da Silva) is to blame and although her “appearances” are few she is ascendant. The play opens with Violet seated at her dressing table, her hair styled, her face made up, wearing an emerald green dress and matching necklace. The immediate impression of faux elegance is heightened as the stage lightens to reveal a stiflingly pink bedroom, with white telephone and many-pillowed bed. Mary (Michala Banas), the eldest daughter, emerges from beneath the capacious spread to commune with the “presence” of her sharpish, critical mother, an attitude that Mary, despite her rejection of her likeness to her mother, reflects in her exchanges with her sisters.
When Teresa (Jo Downing) breaks into Mary’s attempt to get extra sleep, it is apparent that she is deeply resentful of Mary’s successful life as a neurologist and of her married lover. It is apparent she feels her life was sacrificed to ensure Mary’s success and has continued to see herself as a martyr. Mary, for her part, makes constant jokes at the expense of Teresa’s chosen vocation, the selling of homeopathic remedies, and the pair fall into an obviously familiar dialogue of wrangling over little things. When the youngest and needy Catherine (Madeleine Jones) arrives, she constantly bemoans that she was always left out and that no one values her.
As the three interact, their in-character dialogue is very amusing and half-teasing, half-hurtful comments to each other very typical of an uneasy sibling rivalry. They are very amusing as they bicker over their memories of childhood which seemed to have melded into a collective family memory and share a joyful and hysterical moment as they try on Violet’s clothes. As they cavort in her hats, hair pieces and “feminine” dresses, helpless with laughter, in a kind of comical catharsis, Mike (Johnny Nasser), Mary’s lover, literally breaks into their sisterly interlude.
While Mike is less believable as character creation, he brings some objectivity to the family narrative, pointing out to a sceptical Mary that Catherine’s attention-getting is a genuine need for support and acceptance. Another valuable reality check is Frank (Thomas Campbell), Teresa’s husband. He is less vocal but his looks of plain disbelief at some of the emotional excess of the three sisters bring some stability. When it is time for secrets to be revealed he has his own important and dignified contribution.
The most devastating secret is the news that Teresa has no option but to reveal to Mary, who has already revealed a secret of her own. Violet has played a major part in these revelations as a decision maker, and consequently having had a profound influence upon shaping Mary’s life. Given the context, she took a responsibility she thought was hers. Her pervasive influence is undeniable, and all characters at some point find themselves in Violet’s bed.
Whom do we blame for who we become? Memory – highlighted through Mary’s amnesiac patient and Violet’s Alzheimer’s, and the widely disputed theory of water – is subjective, unreliable, malleable, and a suspect witness.
The greatest pleasure of this production is the uniformly excellent performances of the cast who managed Stephenson’s skilful mix of comedy and tragedy with both flair and depth.