BY ROSIE CHALMERS
CN: BEREAVEMENT, FUNERAL, DEMENTIA, LONELINESS, DRINKING
Rosie Chalmers was Assistant Director of Cambridge’s interpretation of Shelagh Stephenson’s dark comedy ‘The Memory of Water’, which was on at the Corpus Playroom in November. Here, she discusses the play’s important themes of dementia, bereavement and social support.
Shelagh Stephenson wrote the dark comedy The Memory of Water shortly after the death of her mother. There is an undeniable presence of this recent loss in Stephenson’s script as the stage is filled with a nervous energy and the constant threat of emotional collapse. The drama centres round three united sisters forced to spend the night in their childhood home before their mother’s funeral in the morning. Being part of the play’s production as Assistant Director, I became interested how the characters confronted bereavement as well as the difficulties in mourning someone so affected by dementia they seemed to lose the core of their identity.
“The fear of the unknown is always the greatest terror and dementia forces us to contemplate a blankness that cannot be imagined.”
Anna Bullard, as deceased mother ‘Vi’, reappears in a vision to one of her daughters
Much of the play is carried by bickering and arguing which is well-fuelled by the continuous drinking. It was important to represent these levels of tension but to avoid having the piece be consumed by monotonous fighting. Each sister finds solace from this in different places. Theresa may seem to self-destruct but does so relying on her wife who she trusts will take care of her and pick up the pieces. Likewise Mary has her partner, Mike, who has, though a little begrudgingly, fought a snowy blizzard and cancelled trains to reach her. Though the couple have a turbulent relationship, his presence alone and awkward affection provide some comfort and safety. The youngest sister Catherine has nobody to turn to and hence unravels rapidly as the drama continues. Her breakdown demonstrates the necessity of having a strong emotional support network when facing a bereavement. Having this loneliness displayed on a totally white stage emphasised for me the dangers of self-imposed isolation.
“[Catherine’s] breakdown demonstrates the necessity of having a strong emotional support network when facing a bereavement”
Jo Hilton as ‘Mike’, Mary’s partially present boyfriend
One of the most touching moments of the piece comes very near the end when Theresa gives Catherine a hug, the first warm physical contact between the sisters. It highlights how desperately this hug was need from the start. Even though many more tragic secrets have come to life we somehow feel appeased by this movement. I think this accurately reflects how we deal with trauma in general. Even though the problems and sadness may seem insurmountable some affection and the possibility of having someone to lean on does a little to relieve the burden.
“Even though the problems and sadness may seem insurmountable some affection and the possibility of having someone to lean on does a little to relieve the burden”
The play also focuses on the anxiety of seeing Alzheimer’s disease take over the life of an elderly parent. Their mother returns in dreamlike scenes to speak to one daughter only and gives elusive answers to the onslaught of questions she is met with. The play deals with two spectres of the unknown; memory loss and death. Each character has their own conflicting memories of childhood and there is a reluctant acceptance that memory is often embellished or corrupted. The possibility of losing all memory entirely though is troubling, as one character asks “who are you if your memories are taken away?” In a world where it is normal to chronicle every part of your day, from the food you ate to the people you saw, Alzheimer’s appears like a modern horror story. The fear of the unknown is always the greatest terror and dementia forces us to contemplate a blankness that cannot be imagined. However some of the mother’s character still glimmers through as she fondly remembers old faces and a recalls sudden desperate desire to dance in the garden. This seems to inject the stage with life and joy. Hence she makes a graceful and strong presence encouraging us to see a deeper, more complex character not just a manifestation of illness.
“She makes a graceful and strong presence encouraging us to see a deeper, more complex character not just a manifestation of illness”
Hence Stephenson journeys, with humour and empathy, into the bleak and vast plains of an uncharted world where memory and identity seem to dissolve. Although it may pose large and looming philosophical questions, the play also illustrates how we continue to live with these fears. The rawness of the emotional plot-line is eased by the minor rebuilding of relationships between sisters who briefly slip into a bizarre hysterical dress up game in their mother’s wardrobe (above). I hope that the play allowed a portrayal of how messy and turbulent the mourning process can be as well as how the loneliness and complete bewildering nature of death may not be removed but may be better handled when there is someone there to turn to.