Belvoir St, January 27.
As much as any words it is the verbs and adjectives of her body: the coiling fingers and restless toes, the aimless arcs described by hands, the twitches and spasms, the shrugs and shuffling. As well as being very finely observed, these are all so organic in their implementation that, as much as her delivery of 75 minutes of a withering text, they define what may well be the performance of Noni Hazlehurst’s life.
Daniel Keene’s play was especially written for her, in a collaboration with director Matt Scholten. She is Christy: homeless, sad beyond sorrow and the ruin of a woman who was already ruined when young. Hazlehurst inhabits her with a totality that is as convincing as Christy’s inhabiting a rubbish-strewn underpass where she vies with gulls for scraps of food. Having shed 10 lifetimes worth of tears she is mostly now as dry as a riverbed in drought. Intermittently she crackles with humour, or laments, or asks “what if?”, or even dreams. Her life flush only with stoicism, survival and regrets, and her story of how she came to this is told in snatches of chronology, like a door being opened and closed upon a room in which a requiem plays.
In the deep past Christy had a baby son, Lenny (after his father), whom she secretly called Beau. She meant Beau no harm, but could do him no good. Barred from access to him she looks in a mirror and sees her history retold in her face, and, like the rest of humanity, neither learns from this history nor evades repeating it. She liked to think her drinking was a secret, too, although it wasn’t much of one, just as she wasn’t much of a mother. Despite her brain explosions she swears she wasn’t mad when Lenny had her committed, and Keene adroitly lets us sift for ourselves her truths from her lies.
Whatever help she needed neither she nor the ghost characters who once peopled her life could provide. Not Lenny with his clomping work-boots and hallway-chafing shoulders; not her unloving, crucifix-wielding mother, whose eyes became cockroaches when Christy was on a turpentine-fuelled bender; not Lenny’s sister who “had a keyhole for a face” and was “as barren as a plank”.
Mother is about a society that spits people out and blames the spat rather than the spitters. One whose fall has been as complete as Christy’s deserves compassion rather than contempt, or rather than being treated like a criminal because owns nothing. She also deserves compassion because she feels it, herself (and beautifully expressed: she refers, for instance, to a care home where some of those who are dying “are going so quietly they don’t even wrinkle the sheets”).
Hazlehurst adopts a voice that life has dried and hardened until it is almost splitting – yet it is hardness without coldness or cruelty. Flickers of warmth play around the edges of some memories and sudden stabbing laughs around others.
Keene does not need spell out each syllable of Christy’s story, feeding us enough ingredients for our imaginations to do our own baking. What he has failed to do, however, is fully impale us on Christy’s anguish at telling moments. It is a tiny flaw in a wafer-thin but precious strata of the text.
Designer Kat Chan’s plain black walls denote a life surrounded by impenetrable emptiness, while the stage is cluttered, like Christy’s mind. The design elements thicken the three-dimensionality of a woman whose loneliness is her tomb.