Even though this play is focused on three sisters, I’d actually like to start this by talking about the men who come to surround them. Specifically, Mary’s (Beth Cordingly) boyfriend Mike, and Teresa’s (Juliet Cowan) husband Frank. Mike in particular, who has never met the other sisters before, plunges into the family dynamic with no warning and little invitation. To me they feel like an invasion, but the play seems to invite us to treat them as a rescuing force of sorts. The sisters are grieving. They’re grieving messily and chaotically, with rage and confusion bubbling to the surface. However, they’re not doing anything to merit the finger wagging corrections, empty placations and constant apologies to one another for the sheer embarrassment in which the two men seem to luxuriate. I can’t treat them as rescuers when their main function seems to be that of the embarrassed, uncomfortable onlooker.
If anything, this feels less like a play about grief or memory, and more like a play about differing approaches to crisis, as well as to life more generally. In the three sisters, we see various ways to respond to both a life changing event, and to the world in general. The characters are all conveniently entirely different from one another, to the extent that no-one seems to be able to remotely relate to anyone else. Interactions often feel stilted: they’re more there to be analysed on their own, not in combination.
The choice to have Mary speak directly with the ghost of her mother in a couple of dreamlike segments is an interesting one. They take a very different stylistic tone to the rest of the play and feel maybe a bit out of place, but they do offer a more developed sense of the strained, uncommunicative relationship between mother and daughter. It would be nice to see some kind of equivalent for her sisters, who’s parental relationships are instead just alluded to and brought up in arguments. If this play is going to deal with how people can remember the same events and loved ones differently from each other, surely we need the same level of analysis and stage time across the board.
In terms of staging, the curtains around the bedroom set work well. It feels like a sacred space of sorts, permeated by grief but still removed from the outside world. That said, the use of the revolve really doesn’t work. I just can’t understand what the desired outcome is. It doesn’t seem to bring anything to the table, and it also means that the furniture-heavy set is often blocking our view of the actors on their slow journey round to where they started.
It may be a little obvious, but I feel that a lot of the problems here come from the text, not the actors. I don’t feel like they have much to work with – if a character doesn’t make a lot of sense on paper, it can be hard to translate that reasonably on to the stage. Perhaps with a very different concept, somehow acknowledging the gaps in the material and recognising the incompleteness of the characters, this play could work much better. In this adaptation however, it doesn’t really click.
The Memory Of Water is playing until 18 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Nottingham Playhouse website.