Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water, while a skilfully constructed comedy, is perhaps at its core more centred on its heavily-emphasised themes of memory and loss. It’s also very clear that this is a play about women: the two men who appear in the play serve largely as accessories to the sisters, with very little exploration into their independent thoughts and feelings. This production didn’t necessarily overlook any of these elements: but it’s difficult to see exactly what point they were driving at with their interpretation.
Anna Curzon Price’s set design was effective without being overstated, not distracting from the actors but providing a backdrop to what must have been a lonely life for Vi. In this mostly naturalistic play, there’s not a lot of room to experiment with sound and lighting, but they supported the production effectively; the lighting used for Mary’s dream-like conversations with Vi set the mood appropriately. The projections of water used were a clear allusion to the play’s themes, but did come across a little distracting at times; perhaps they would have been better suited to an emptier stage.
As previously mentioned, The Memory of Water is a play about women: as such, this makes the decision to change Frank to a female character a questionable one, thematically. The male characters are certainly supposed to serve as a counterpart to the women in the play, and this change weakens the comparison of Frank to the sisters’ unnamed father, as well as Catherine’s pitiable bid for his attention. However, thanks to Charlotte Husnjak’s deadpan and acerbic performance, this certainly didn’t detract from the piece as a whole. Joe Hilton’s rather weak-willed Mike, meanwhile, gave the impression that his life circumstances had come about more by chance than anything- which meshed well with the forceful, often turbulent personalities of the three sisters and was highlighted by his complete failure to repel Catherine’s intoxicated advances on him.
Force of personality is one of few constants across Vi and her daughters. Catherine is perhaps the most overt example of this, a wildly exuberant character who yet still manages to be completely overlooked by her family a majority of the time. Priya Edwards did an admirable job of bringing across Catherine’s sheer energy, as well as her transparent need for validation and attention. This made a strong contrast to Kay Benson’s Theresa, who seemed a little flat at times. Certainly this could be interpreted as the effects of her mother’s recent death; yet for a character whose life is clearly dominated by anxiety, Benson’s interpretation just didn’t seem to include enough tension. Sadly, this resulted in a few of Theresa’s more hysterical comedic lines losing some of their impact.
However, Benson still provided a suitable “bickering” partner to Iulia Tchilaia’s sardonic Mary, who is –ostensibly at least–the most grounded of the three sisters. Her mission to be reunited with her son Patrick is touching in its futility, and lends weight to the difficulty of her relationship with Mike. However, this interpretation did lack some of the venom seen in other interpretations of Mary, weakening the comedy in places. The scenes between Mary and Vi are perhaps the weakest part of Stephenson’s writing, but Anna Bullard’s Vi was believably both aloof and hurt by her daughters’ lack of appreciation for her efforts. However, the character did feel a little two-dimensional, not fully bringing across the mischievous and fun-loving nature of this younger spectre of Vi. Their final scene is never easy to stage in its heavy symbolism, but the mirroring effect used did not seem the best way to overcome this: in a broadly naturalistic play, the physical theatre seemed out of place, distracting from the poignancy of Vi’s words.
While perhaps not realised to its full potential, the production still made interesting observations and provided more than a few laughs. With a little more direction, this piece could certainly pack a punch.
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