Brighton Fringe 2017
Festival: Brighton Fringe
There are any number of plays about insanity, but it’s only a minority of them that examine the condition from the inside. We’re used to seeing the outward behaviour of disturbed people, but not many productions give us a view from within that individual’s own perception.
‘Hidden Mother’ does give us one – very believably indeed.
Diana Denidova is a cabaret singer in Petrograd, just after the October Revolution in Russia. The black-walled acting area of the Theatre Box has the cramped intimacy of a nightclub, and she bursts onto the club’s small stage in full-on diva mode. She’s an imposing woman, dominating the space in a black dress, floral patterned silk wrapper, black shawl round her shoulders and the most flaming orange-red hair I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s the ‘Former Persons’ club – Leon, her pianist, tells us that it’s “the place where there are no outsiders”. At least here in the Club they’re still alive – because these are people who have fallen foul of the politics of the Bolshevik Party – “According to Lenin we don’t even exist!”
But we soon begin to realise that she doesn’t actually exist in the Club, either. She starts to reminisce about parties in pre-revolutionary Petrograd, and Leon brings her back to earth by reminding her that in order to have such memories she would need to be well over ninety years old. Diana retorts angrily that these are in fact her mother’s memories, passed on to Diana as a child. “My mother was a Princess!”
So she’s not actually in 1917 Petrograd at all – we come to understand she’s in an asylum, somewhere in England, and that the time is the present. She has only Leon as a companion – he plays piano there, too, and he’s presumably another patient. With a lurch, we realise that the Club is an hallucination of Diana’s, that this is where she goes to escape the tedium of the institution she’s incarcerated in.
But there are more facets to Diana’s jumbled existence – every so often a spotlight pins her, centre stage, like a rabbit caught in headlights, and we hear the voice of her therapist stripping away her imagined past – “My mother was a Princess” – to get her to face the truth. But when exactly is this? Are we hearing Diana’s therapist in the present, or are we hearing Diana’s memories of their past encounters?
Her mother, it seems, was probably an unstable woman who drank and who took numerous lovers, and whose husband eventually threw both mother and daughter out onto the street. Diana was brought up by her grandmother, and never saw her parents again. But that’s too hard to face, so Diana has constructed a more glamorous existence for herself. It’s more comfortable, living in the past – especially as an aristocrat. (Why are lunatics and ‘spirit channellers’ always inhabited by royalty like Cleopatra or Napoleon, and never by the surely much more numerous commoners and peasants?)
It’s more comfortable in the asylum, too. They don’t have to face all the pressures and problems of the outside world. But this is the present, and their institution is about to be closed. Leon thinks that the land will be used to build a luxury development – flats that people like them could never afford. A future of ‘Care in The Community’ seems inevitable, with therapy, if available at all, delivered by telephone from a care-agency call centre worker. Or possibly by a sophisticated interactive computer programme – that’s even cheaper …
I believed in their situation, as people stuck in a nightmare of insecurity and dislocation, but it seemed to me that the writing couldn’t quite decide whether this play was concerned with a depiction of madness, or a plea against the dismantling of the mental health system. It might have been more powerful to go all out in one direction.
I was very impressed with the performances. Laura Louise Baker as Diana will be hard to forget. Her switches from dominating Diva to damaged daughter were unsettling, and when she screamed at her therapist – “I WAS MAD! … I like being angry; it means I’m not weak” – I was riveted to my seat. Polis Loizou was sufficiently languid and world-weary to bring life to both incarnations of Leon, the cabaret pianist and the patient. I believed in the actors’ characters completely..
I believed in them as living, breathing human beings – but here’s a thing …
You may have noticed that I’ve talked mostly about Diana. That’s because from everything I saw, I couldn’t help feeling that Diana’s insanity had yet another level. That Leon didn’t actually exist outside her imagination and that, in fact, she was quite alone. She’s the one who talks to us. She’s the one whose therapist’s voice we hear. What if Leon is as much a product of her fevered imagination as the 1917 audience in the ‘Former Persons’ club? Off-Off-Off-Broadway don’t seem to have considered this possibility, at least not in their publicity; but for this reviewer it offered an intriguing extra possibility to the situation.
You’ll have to decide for yourselves. I’d recommend you catch this production and make up your own minds. You won’t be disappointed.