From the family-friendly fare of Around the World in 80 Days, the second half of Steam Industry’s Dangerous Journeys season kicks off at 8pm with Bertold Brecht’s 1932 play, in a new translation by Mark Ravenhill.
A tale of rebellion against the financial and political ruling classes, the piece gains additional levels of irony by being played in a space nestling at the foot of the home of London’s politicians and surrounded by offices which, during the day, are full of accountants. And the open air setting allows for natural, and appropriate, lighting, as dusk turns to darkness on a Russia heading for war and revolution.
The Mother in question is Pelegea Vlassova, who starts to fear for her young son Pavel when he gets involved with the political activists at the factory in which he works. Afraid that he may be arrested, she volunteers to distribute pro-strike leaflets in his place, even though she does not really understand why the workers are calling for a strike. Her constant questioning leads her to start believing in their cause – and even to start leading it.
And so begins Vlassova’s journey from ignorant housewife to political firebrand. As Pavel is arrested and his mother falls under suspicion, she is smuggled out of the city to work as a housekeeper to a louche professor (a delightfully comic turn from director Phil Wilmott, who alternates the role with Ravenhill). Rejecting the opportunity to lead a quiet life, she soon has the professor teaching workers to read and write, the better to understand and distribute the Communist propaganda leaflets she is printing up in the house’s kitchen.
Throughout, Nickie Goldie plays Vlassova with kindly determination, as she becomes the mother not only of Pavel, but of his friends and allies and of the whole Bolshevik movement. It is an astonishing performance that one would gladly see in a paid-for venue.
Indeed, the whole production (barring the voiceovers heralding each scene change, which add nothing) is exemplary. The writing is great – although I don’t know enough about the original piece to know which bits to credit to Brecht, and which to Ravenhill – giving full force to the tragedy of Pavel’s broken spirit one moment, providing moments of tension-breaking levity the next.
With a number of songs by Theo Holloway and Richard Norris (who also performs on stage), which nicely supplement the dramatic action without ever threatening to turn the show into Communism! The Musical, The Mother turns out to be a powerful, thought-provoking, funny, tragic, uplifting tale that, while steeped in history, speaks volumes to the 21st century audience.
The Mother is playing at 8pm, Thursday-Sunday at 6pm (preceded by Around the World in 80 Days at 6pm) until September 4.