In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but couldn’t because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to Roxana Silbert, director of ’Night, Mother, which was due to open at Hampstead Theatre. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother, the Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander about mother and daughter Thelma and Jessie who spend an evening together in the wake of Jessie announcing her intention to kill herself, had its UK premiere at London’s Hampstead Theatre in 1985. Roxana Silbert’s revival was due to run from July 2 to August 1, with a press night on Wednesday July 8. It was part of the Hampstead Classics season, a quartet of restaged plays from the theatre’s archive chosen to celebrate the theatre’s 60th anniversary.
“I saw ’Night, Mother as a student and I loved it,” says Roxana Silbert, Hampstead’s artistic director. “It was at a time when there were very few plays by female writers seen on stage. It’s written like a Greek tragedy.
At the start the daughter announces her intention to kill herself, but even though you know what’s going to happen, it still manages to generate real suspense.
“It’s like a thriller, but one that is interrogating a mother-daughter relationship. The question at its heart is: ‘What would Jessie need to stay alive?’
“When I first saw it, I was nearer in age to the daughter. Now I’m closer in age to the mother and I see it as a very profound play about what makes life worth living. So, it feels current. The pandemic has made many of us question what is it that we really value.”
How far did they get?
“It was the last play in the Hampstead Classic season, so not far. The first play, Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, was in technical rehearsals when the shutdown came. The set is still on the stage. The second play in the season, Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play, had been fully cast.
When we first shut down, we hoped that maybe we’d be back in early June in time for ’Night Mother, but of course it became apparent that was way too optimistic and it wasn’t going to happen.
Will they put it on at a later date?
“I hope so, but it’s hard to know what the temperature of the country will be when we eventually open up. I’m resistant to the idea of staging plays that look as if they have been programmed proactively to a pandemic, and there are all sorts of questions we don’t know the answer to around audiences and whether they will come and what they will want to see.
“But the plays we chose for the Classics season were all written and staged when Hampstead was in its original building, a shed.
“They don’t have big casts and they take place in an enclosed room. Coming out of a pandemic, plays about two or three people locked in a room and how they manage that, and their relationships, may seem very pertinent. But I don’t know. None of us can predict the future.”
‘Coming out of a pandemic, plays about two or three people locked in a room may seem pertinent’
What is Silbert doing during the shutdown?
“The pandemic has been such an interesting time, but I wish I was watching it and not living it. We’re a very small team at Hampstead; a predominantly young and female team, already very lean, but we still produce 14 shows a year.
“We have furloughed hard. We have looked after our staff because they are great at what they do, and we want them back when we reopen. We know that if we make people redundant now it will be so hard for them to get another job.
“The tension is between furloughing in order to save money and trying to work within the community and with writers. So, we’ve worked hard with our associates the Mono Box and artists such as Nell Leyshon and Roy Williams to make sure we support our community and writers.
“I think theatre will survive but the infrastructure will shrink. It’s going to be difficult, and we need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. When we do reopen we need to do it with kindness, not ruthlessness.”
Further details: hampsteadtheatre.com
A play that did open in this week was Jasmine Lee-Jones’ gloriously enjoyable Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner at the London Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in 2019, running from July 4 to 27, with a press night on July 8.
The title alone guaranteed it attention, but Lee-Jones’ story of a young woman, Cleo, who gets furious about the Kardashian sister who is proclaimed the world’s youngest self-made billionaire (“she’s about as self-made as my bed”) wasn’t as much staged by director Milli Bhatia, but exploded across the space.
If ’Night, Mother was rare in its era in exploring mother and daughter relationships, then Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner was even rarer for putting on stage the complexities of black female friendship, as Cleo (Danielle Vitalis) creates a Twitter storm when she tweets her fury at Kylie Jenner and a murderous solution. Soon her childhood friend Kara (Tia Bannon) pops round to save Cleo from herself and the braying Twitter mob.
It’s a dense, vibrantly literate play that breaks form and all the rules as it interrogates systematic racism and structural privilege, invisibility, cultural appropriation and gender politics. It does it with a messy exuberance that makes you feel as if you have taken a deep dive into the internet. Bannon and Vitalis (pictured right ) don’t just play their characters, but also play memes, gifs and emojis, recreating all the chaos, violence, freneticism and occasional wit of the Twitterverse.
Lee-Jones’ play swept the 2019 awards, winning The Stage Debut award for best writer, the Alfred Fagon award, a Critics’ Circle award for most promising playwright and an Evening Standard award. I can’t wait to see what she will do next.