Sillage: Finely stitched

Sillage4For theatre to be stirring, it needs to touch the head and heart. When intellect and emotion have been engaged, they move the body through tears, laughter, a smile, a sigh, a clenching of fists. On the very rare occasion, the soul, that indefinable inner sense of self and place, is also affected.

Some people move from feeling to intellect, some the other way around. Not many of us are equally open in heart and mind. I suspect my connection between head and heart is an easy flowing double lane, the other way a single lane with stop-go’s. It is an uphill journey after all.

So there was some resistance to Sillage. It had to get through a few roadworks before I let it travel all the way but once I let it get there, the tears were copious. Put some buckets at my feet and I could’ve alleviated Grahamstown’s water crisis.

This superbly crafted piece of work by Penelope Youngleson which deals with the relationship between mothers and daughters begins with a finely choreographed dance between Rebecca Makin-Taylor as the daughter and Michele Belknap as the mother, as synchronised as blood, as genes, as bone from a single body, for awhile, until Makin-Taylor develops a faster, separate rhythm. A simple device. As simple as the two white chairs and one white table that comprise the set, simple as the identical white dresses these two white women wear, a simplicity that lends itself to a multitude of uses and meanings, that is layered and from the outset signifies we are watching work stitched together as finely as the lace in the performers’ dresses.

The mother-daughter relationship is such a combination of the personal and the universal, such fine fabric that frays so easily against the limbs that rub against it, yet so layered it is almost impossible to tear. So easy for the dressmaker to miscalculate a stitch, to make a garment ill fit for the multitude of bodies it clothes. It is not a cloth that covers me, I am neither daughter nor mother though all of us feel the warp of one – even through absence – and some of us feel the weft of the other. But thanks to Youngleson, we can all see that the dress fits, and these performers wear theirs with distinction.

It’s a very white play, an aspect highlighted by the choices of set and cast. It is a white story: a white daughter from Natal colonial heritage grappling with her mother’s unwitting complicity in a system that privileged her at the expense of others. A privilege that weighs her with guilt and uncertainty as much as it provides personal freedom and intellectual discernment. And a mother who cannot comprehend her daughter’s anger when all she did was be the best mother she knew how to be. It’s a white story in terms of particular and deliberate political context but on a personal level, it is a universal story of how mothers are forever undermined by the relentless march of the next generation.

Similar conversations have played out in black South African kitchens where mothers who sacrificed their lives for their daughters are bewildered by the anger directed at them for pouring all their energy into loving their child instead of marching in the struggle. Race is an externality, just one of many that can wedge themselves between generations.

It is also story that resonates beyond the confines of mothers and daughters. The tone and content of Makin-Taylor’s “discussion” with Belknap are eerily similar to “discussions” I’ve had, along with the lingering misunderstanding that follows in their wake, and the guilt at an anger the source of which is as vague as the drifts of childhood memories.

This “discussion” is something I would have liked to see more of, partly because Makin-Taylor, and Belknap especially, contain its emotions, its unexpressed barbs and defences, the absorption of the weight of everything unsaid behind all that is said with such splendid finesse, and partly because it was such a stunning reflection of my own experience. The poetry the work moves into became too much a deliberate manipulation of feeling, as exquisite as the imagery was, it lacked the substance of the prose even as it worked as a device to indicate the growing separation between the characters.

Part of the beauty of Sillage is that it offers no answers to the confounding misunderstandings that plague us, but it might offer a mirror to some of us, a reflection that begs us to be kinder, more forgiving.

It is a cruel fate to be blamed for putting all your energy into loving, protecting and caring for your child, a fate most children only realise they have brought to fruition once their own children place it in their arms.

Sillage is at Princess Alice Hall every day at 10h00 until 9 July. Programme notes and booking here.

— Steve Kretzmann


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