“Its success is not just in the imaginative re-telling but one that is fit for the modern world”

It is hard to comprehend how Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Story of a Mother’, could be made more harrowing but with Arthur Pita’s dark imagination, this choreographic re-telling of an old fable is just that. In the original story, a desperate mother embarks on a fraught journey through a night of beastly encounters to save her child from death’s clutches and as the audience filtered into Southbank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the narrative was already unfolding.

Aided by emotive choreography, creative set design and a hauntingly beautiful sound score, in what follows, we bear witness to The Mother’s hellish odyssey. Pita’s modern adaptation has a rather ‘Alice in Wonderland’ feel, as the lines between nightmare and reality are often blurred.

Natalia Osipova, who embodies the character of The Mother so fully and with such visceral quality, plays these feverish scenes to perfection. With her hair hung loosely over a simple nude dress Osipova is evocative of Pina Bausch, not only in look but also in a primal rawness, pulling you further into her torment with each undulating contraction. These painful soliloquies are only interrupted by her next fated trial.

This exploration of narrative dance theatre is a far cry from Osipova’s classical ballet roles but she excels and is completely inhabited by her tragic character. In such moments of passionate abandon, these were the only times the set felt too contained. Whether that was intentional or not it often left you wanting more.

Mother’s torment rarely ceases, as she is guided through her own nightmare by deaths many incarnations, encountering faceless widows, torturous drag queens, and eye thieving ferrymen, all played exquisitely by Jonathan Goddard. To him, she loses her breath, blood, her hair and even her sight, with each encounter more searingly painful than the last.

Musicians Frank Moon and Dave Price, along with their array of instruments, flank each side of the stage creating a dialogue and visible relationship between themselves and the dancers. Every note and every sound has its place and the pair help elevate this nightmarish world, providing an eerie mythical landscape of sound in which the story sits.

Other than Osipova’s beautiful solos the most memorable choreographic moments are the duets between her and Goddard. The pair conveys the tragic tale with effortless beauty. With Goddard’s constantly changing characters each duet is unique, almost as if Osipova has a new partner but always with the same sensitivity and intuition. Goddard is, without doubt, the master of many faces – even the faceless ones.

Despite a relatively small cast of two dancers and two musicians this piece develops out of many elements and intricacies, which combine harmoniously to create a wild yet completely comprehensible journey through the narrative.

Its success is not just in the imaginative re-telling but one that is fit for the modern world, in which motherhood is now understood not just as a joyful experience but one often fraught with physical and psychological hardship.

Words: Grace Keeble

The Mother is playing June 21 and 22 at The Southbank Centre.


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