Man of many talents, Jonathan Goddard talks to Josephine Balfour Oatts about his exciting new, Arthur Pita helmed dance piece, The Mother.
Luckily, the pillar-box-red seating in Meeting Room Two at Premier PR is blushing more than I. Jonathan Goddard floats through the door and circumnavigates my outstretched hand, our limbs landing in a clumsy hug. Unlike myself (bashful and somewhat flustered), Goddard grins easily, a drowsy laugh escaping his lips. Sleep edges at the corners of our conversation. Having touched down in England from Moscow the previous day – where he and principal ballerina Natalia Osipova have been touring their most recent work The Mother – a little caffeine proves necessary in order to cross over into the land of the living.
Perhaps this is something of an occupational hazard, since Goddard’s character requires him to inhabit many shades of Death. Based on the dark fable by Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of The Mother, The Mother has been adapted with choreographer Arthur Pita at the helm. He is no stranger to Andersen’s signature, having translated The Little Match Girl from page to stage in 2013. The original tells of a young single mother who is forced to overcome fantastical trials in search of her baby, whose capture threatens her succumbing to evil forces. It is, ultimately, an ode to motherhood.
The creative process though, Goddard notes, has been a concerted effort. Aesthetic inspirations were initially born out an illustrated version of the story that Pita had garnered overseas. “He had been very attracted to its imagery,” Goddard nods, laughing knowingly as we discuss its kaleidoscopic nature. “Arthur’s first thought was that we should try to bring the outside, inside,” he continues, “his second thought was to set it in Russia.”
While the former acts as a means of invoking a tenuous sense of reality, the latter is a celebration of Osipova’s heritage – therefore presenting both dancers with a physical link to Andersen’s narrative. So, “it is set in a flat, in Russia, in the past,” Goddard says, his hands beating out each point on the table in front of us. More specifically, Yann Seabra’s design sees the duet unfold across three rooms: a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Each site is crafted so as to take on separate locations within the plot, such as the forest of fir trees, a lake that collects pearls, and Death’s hothouse.
Set to an original score performed live by Frank Moon and Dave Price, The Mother bears witness to a layering of artistic elements. Both multi-instrumentalists, Moon and Price already have a history with Pita. “They devised in the space with us,” Goddard says, the admiration in his voice tangible. It took a total of four weeks to create the piece in their studio at the Southbank Centre which, significantly, is the same location in which the group are to finish their run at the end of this month.
Any suggestion of post-natal depression within the narrative is meant to flood the stage with ambiguity, and is a purposeful device designed to charge the action with mystery. In The Mother, Osipova’s character is essentially on her own. Death is omnipresent, and despite taking many animate and inanimate forms, isn’t a companion to her. Goddard admits that the creative legroom attributed to his character was a phenomenally “attractive” prospect. Running at an hour and 15 minutes, there is only a slender window in which to achieve such a degree of shape-shifting. “I find the darker characters easier [to play], somehow,” he says, likening Death to those who work in the medical field. “I took to watching the body language of people in those types of professions when I approached the role,” he continues, his fascination centred around their perpetual connection with grief.
There is use of a doll onstage to physicalise the baby that the mother is aching for, though there are instances where more filmic elements shift in order to interpret the presence of young life. This can be seen particularly at the climax of the production, in Death’s Garden of Souls. Unusually for audiences, The Mother presents an opportunity to witness Osipova’s balletic magic close-up. The environment is extremely intimate, which in itself adds to the intensity of the emotions that erupt during scenes. “It’s very dreamlike and definitely claustrophobic,” Goddard nods, “the stage is shuttered so it’s almost like a wide-screen film.”
In its playfulness with form, The Mother calls to mind Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit, a work inspired by its principal performer Jonathon Young. Its many textures manage to articulate Young’s personal tragedy of losing a child, accounting for this unspeakable experience using an innovative movement language. Where Betroffenheit implements text, The Mother sees moments of indirect communication; such as a murmuring at the end of a telephone, or words heard through the radio. “Natalia vocalises in terms of screaming [too], so it’s not completely mute,” Goddard adds, pushing his glasses towards the bridge of his nose.
That the piece lacks a male protagonist is also of importance to Goddard. Though there are two performers, this is a story of an inherently female experience. Here, Death has no gender. This means that their journey doesn’t give focus to any kind of romantic connection, though Natalia’s character may flirt with the darkness inside of herself. Goddard’s next project: While You Are Here, plays with a rather more herculean scope. He will be choreographing alongside playwright Eve Leigh and theatre director Lily McLeish, the trio overseeing four performers as they travel from the beginning of time, to the end of days. Even after our goodbye (now a brusque shake of the hand), I am acutely aware of the feeling of wonderment that insists on accompanying me from our meeting and back onto the busy streets of Soho.
The Mother is playing from 20 – 22 June. For more information and tickets, visit the Southbank Centre website.