Into the darkest recesses of the mind: Natalia Osipova in The Mother

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
June 20, 2019

David Mead

While Natalia Osipova continues to excel in all the big classical ballet roles, she’s equally keen to go ‘off-piste’; to find new challenges and do something different. Arthur Pita understands her, she claims, adding that they both a theatrical approach to dance and to show the dark side in people. The Mother is certainly theatrical; and very, very dark. Disturbing, even.

Inspired by Storia Di Una Madre, a book of textless illustrations by Italian artist AkaB, itself based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, Story of a Mother, Pita’s work delves into the deepest recesses of a mother’s mind.

Pita has tweaked the story to include Russian references. We first meet Osipova as she sits in her oppressive small flat. It’s Russia, circa 1970. Here, as everywhere, the attention to detail is superb. It’s poorly lit. Flaking paint and peeling wallpaper suggests dampness. The child cries incessantly. Its mother is anxious and on edge.

Natalia Osipova in The MotherPhoto Kenny Mathieson
Natalia Osipova in The Mother
Photo Kenny Mathieson

Suffering from what appears to be postpartum depression, she falls asleep by the cot of her ailing child. Whether her baby was actually taken by death or whether her mind is playing tricks, it’s not long before we enter a world of shadows and very dark places. She sets off after her child, along the way meeting characters from the original story.

Osipova throws herself into the role, not holding back for a moment. There is an intensity in her performance. When we first see her terror after she realises her child has gone, it seems so real. It’s not long before we realise we are now in her mind, though. There are moments when she is incredibly graceful, when her balletic background bubbles momentarily to the surface, but at other times her dance is as raw as can be; a frenzy of physicality, of flinging arms and flying hair as she thrashes around, fighting and railing against her demons. It is dance of ugly beauty as she gives herself totally to her character.

Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard in The MotherPhoto Mikah Smillie
Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard in The Mother
Photo Mikah Smillie

All the other roles are played by the outstanding Jonathan Goddard, who shifts through them with ease, even when wearing high heels. They are met in the bedroom, bathroom or kitchen, all linked by doors and depicted magnificently on Yann Seabra’s revolving stage. There’s the unnerving and faceless babushka, who insists the mother dances; then a rose gardener and his brambles, which the Mother wraps herself in, its thorns tearing into her body, causing it and her dress to become dramatically bloodied. In a clever twist that sees a bath double as Anderson’s lake, a ferryman takes her eyes as ‘payment’ for information. There’s a white-haired witch; and most poignantly, a lover and a rare moment of tenderness.

All the time, the atmosphere and feel is added too by the remarkable percussion, strings and vocal soundscape conjured up by composer-musicians Frank Moon and Dave Price, playing live one each side of the stage.

There are no happy endings in Hans Christian Anderson stories, and his original The Mother concludes typically darkly. Pita tosses in another tweak but leaves you wondering. Have we rewound to before the beginning or are we seeing another mother, unaware of things to come? Was it all in her mind? Was it real?

Whatever, The Mother is a superb evening of physical theatre. Compelling throughout, and at times incredibly emotional, it will have you on the edge of your seat. Hold on tight. It’s a hell of a ride.