The mind is a fickle thing: sometimes we struggle to recall a name or a word that we have used a hundred times over; on other occasions, we so vividly remember something that never actually happened to us; and, if you’re anything like me, then you may be prone to leaving all manner of things in the fridge that simply don’t belong there. But the worst thing the mind can do is to allow disease to erase all semblance of recollection from you, as is the case with Alzheimer’s Disease, something truly harrowing not only for the afflicted, but for those around them too.
Navigating the tumultuous waters of memory, and how it can build and dismantle a family, is the Hampstead Theatre original The Memory of Water, returning to the theatre a quarter of a century after it first premiered. The play takes its name from the theory that water can retain a ‘memory’ of substances which have passed through it, much like how Vi has left her mark on each of her three daughters. As the sisters gather in their family home to bid farewell to their late mother, their childhood recollections appear to differ vastly, each retaining a wholly different image of the woman who spent her final years with Alzheimer’s, stripping her of those very same memories.
Phenomenally led by Lucy Black (Teresa), Carolina Main (Catherine), and Laura Rogers (Mary), the cast is simply sublime in all respects. Their rapport is palpable from the very first scene, unearthing a tangible history that persists in bubbling over at the most inopportune moments. Like chalk and cheese (and air), the sisters clash with ferocity, but also love with intensity – never forgetting the bond that they share, no matter how hard they fight against it.
Transforming the theatre into Vi’s outmoded bedroom, Designer Anna Reid halves the stage horizontally to create a cloudy sky over the house, allowing for some stunning lighting transitions by Johanna Town, and drawing an expansive breath into the auditorium.
Feeling claustrophobic and yet unending, the stage gives Director Alice Hamilton the freedom to explore the dynamic shifts that take place between these grief-struck women. From passionate debate or emotional outpourings, Hamilton breaks the rhythm with sudden entrances or bursts of energy (usually from the impulsive Catherine). These shifts in pace motivate the narrative through its many twists and turns to an honest climax, maintaining a darkly comic edge throughout.
Completely devoid of sentimentality, Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water winds a path through the lives of what feels like a real family. Stephenson makes it tremendously difficult to sit in judgement, as she breaks through these characters with a sledgehammer and forces them to build themselves back up, or look at the pieces in despair. Around every corner is a landmine waiting to explode, sometimes for good, but always with grit and drama.
This play is a true masterpiece of British theatre, as is clear from its continued relevance today. But this production doesn’t take that success as a given, revitalising it with true craft and a clear vision. An exceptional performance, that I hope keeps the heart of this play beating for another twenty-five years.
The Memory of Water is now playing at Hampstead Theatre until 16 October. For more information and to book tickets, visit Hampstead Theatre’s Website.