Memory is a fickle thing. It is integral in the make-up of who we are, functioning as the storage of our experiences, of our past. But, do we choose what we remember? And, how accurate are the things we claim to remember? Shelagh Stephenson’s black comedy, The Memory of Water, is a moving account of these deeply philosophical concerns. Through explosive arguments, voluminous drinking, and hysterical breakdowns, this play proves to be a deeply meditative account of mourning, and of the joys and despairs of motherhood.
Returning to the Hampstead Theatre as part of the venue’s ‘Originals’ run, this production of The Memory of Water marks the play’s twenty-fifth anniversary. It is a play that centres around three sisters—Mary (Laura Rogers), Teresa (Lucy Black), and Catherine (Carolina Main)—who have assembled at their childhood home to plan their mother’s funeral. When we first meet the sisters they are discordant and at odds with one another. To cope with their mother’s death, each sister acts differently. Mary obsesses over a patient at her work, while drinking whisky; Teresa neurotically makes funeral arrangements, while taking Rescue-Remedy; and, Catherine shops compulsively, complaining excessively, all while smoking joints liberally. Stephenson remains an impartial judge over whose method is right or wrong, in the play. Instead, she uses each of the sister’s conflicts to open up a space in which she can interrogate the all-important question: How are we supposed to mourn?
Notably, the sister’s ‘bicker’, they don’t argue. And tonally, these scenes of familial bickering are always astutely tuned. Each scene is punctuated with ironic wit and humour—often best exemplified by Teresa’s husband Frank (Kulvinder Ghir)—effectively capturing the fragile dynamic of friendships and of love. At their best, these disputes provide a candid example of our comically pathetic reaction to death. They balance humour with solemnity, remembrance with hope, and life with loss. Yet, at times, the sheer quantity of these spats can leave the play feeling rushed and overdone.
Centrally, The Memory of Water coheres around the theme of motherhood. Mary, the most precocious daughter, sleeps in her mother’s bedroom (a room with dated seventies decor, and the single setting of the play), and dreams of her mother at night. She converses with the spectre of her mother in these dreams, airing their unfinished business, often in aloof and unwelcoming exchanges. It is only when we learn of Mary’s own tragic experience of motherhood that Stephenson’s emphasis on their relationship distils. Dreams, as a manifestation of memories, allow Mary to converse with her mother after it’s too late. Mary’s dreams allow her to apologise to her mother, and equally for her mother to forgive her. In their imaginative reconciliation, the literal death of Mary’s mother is finally permitted to occur. There is something deeply human in Mary’s final, feeble plea for her mother to stay—if only for a moment longer and in a dream.
Memory, mourning, and motherhood converge in The Memory of Water to create a compelling drama of love and loss. In many ways, Stephenson presents memory as a force that allows mourning to occur—for in order to mourn one must remember a person in the wake of their absence. Ultimately, then, it might not be necessary to distinguish between whether a memory is accurate or not. Rather, we should relish in the knowledge that the very act of remembering is an act of survival, of keeping one alive. What is lost is never truly lost, even if it is misremembered. And, learning to love the cold, as Mary concludes she must do, does not require her to forget her memories of the warmth.
Words by Jack Rondeau
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