Published on January 31, 2023

La Mémoire de l'eau, a new jewel of the Théâtre des Galeries

By Shana Devleschoudere
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The Memory of Water - by Shelagh Stephenson - adapted by Brigitte Buc and Fabrice Gardin

February 1-26, 2023 - Tuesday through Saturday at 8:15pm, Sundays at 3pm.

At the Théâtre Royal des Galeries - 32, Galerie du Roi - 1000 Brussels - Location : 02 / 512 04 07 - from 11am to 6pm from Tuesday to Saturday.

"I wish you would stop remembering things that didn't really happen."

In a village on the English coast, on the occasion of their mother's funeral, three sisters meet again in the house where they spent their childhood, three women very different from each other.

Children never have the same childhood memories... When Teresa, Mary and Catherine meet again in the family house, on the occasion of their mother's death, they quickly resume their little girls' bickering and mockery. A few well-tempered whiskies and a few puffs of illicit substances are enough to turn the return to the fold into a delirious stay. The past, which was thought to be buried forever, will suddenly resurface, bringing with it its share of secrets, lies and hysteria.

The Memory of Water is a magnificent story of ghosts: Vi's ghost that appears to Mary, looking for justifications for the mother she was; ghosts especially of a childhood recovered according to the needs of each one. Who are we really? What are the webs of our lives woven from? What are we made of? How to answer these fundamental questions without confusing illusion and reality?

The Memory of Water offers us an acute analysis of our human behavior. A sensitive analysis but also ferociously funny through salty retorts.

An excellent English family comedy that is also a tender reflection on female memory. Intense and surprising.

The Memory of Water is a play written by English playwright Shelagh Stephenson, first performed at Hampstead Theatre in 1996. It won the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy.

Shelagh Stephenson

Shelagh Stephenson was born in 1967 in Tyneside, Northumberland, England. Married to Irish filmmaker Eoin O'Callaghan, Shelagh Stephenson admits that she wanted to be an author from the age of six. However, she didn't really think about a career until she enrolled in drama studies at Manchester University.

In 1988, at the age of 21, she made her acting debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The theater became her profession, but she did not feel comfortable with it. She began writing short plays for radio, which were immediately bought, broadcast and appreciated. By the time she wrote 'The Memory of Water' in 1996, Shelagh Stephenson had already won several awards for her BBC radio plays, including 'Darling Peidi', 'The Anatomical Venus' and 'Five Kinds of Silence' which won the 1996 Authors' Guild Award for Best Play. The Memory of Water' premiered in 1996 at the Hampstead Theatre, London. The play subsequently toured the world.

At the outset, only one thing was clear to the author: her play would be about identity and would feature three sisters. "Identity is always a fascinating subject. Yet I can't remember exactly what themes I was exploring at the time, except perhaps that the plot was to take place at a family reunion on a mother's 75th birthday. That's when my own mother passed away. Back home in Newcastle, I realized it would be a good idea to change the plot of my play to take place during a funeral."

The play then took on, in her words, " a more universal character and allowed me to develop more introspective relationships between the characters and to explore an important theme, that of the consequences for women of the death of their mother. We see how they react to grief. But I'm also guessing that memory has something to do with the personal stories that give meaning to our lives. "

Shelagh Stephenson has also written 'An Experiment with an Air Pump' which won the Peggy Ramsay Award in 1997, 'Ancient Lights', which premiered in November 2000 at the Hampstead Theatre, 'Mappa Mundi', which premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2002 and The Long Road in 2008.

She continues to work as a playwright with Hampstead Theatre and the Royal National Theatre.

Interview with Fabrice Gardin

What elements piqued your interest when you first read this text?

It's a play about grief, memory and identity but it has the merit of making us laugh. I felt it had the right balance of sadness, anger and comedy. Their mother has just died and these three sisters meet in the family home for the funeral. This catalyzing event will grow, like a snowball, throughout the show and take away everything in its path.

The story of these sisters who do not tell themselves the same story touched me. They have lived the same childhood and think they share a common past, but they have kept such different memories, memories filtered by individual memory, and interpreted differently by each of the sisters, shaped and embellished to such an extent that illusion has ended up replacing reality. Where does reality end and the family myth begin?

It's as if they were fragments of their mothers who, moreover, find themselves on stage in dialogue with one of them. This process also appealed to me because it allows us to hear her point of view and to understand where the three daughters' very different characters come from.

How would you define this writing?

It is, at the same time, very realistic and very poetic. Very funny and very moving. The English have a gift for telling stories that move us without seeming to. We laugh softly at the ambient madness, we smile at their revengeful puns and, at the turn of a sentence, we are taken by an emotion because they are our sisters, our brothers, our family. Shelagh Stephenson proposes an acute analysis of our human behaviors. A sensitive analysis but also ferociously funny through spiky lines, it gives a piquant play, overflowing with humor and relational twists. It is effective, lively and intelligent.

What can you say about the characters?

Their mother has died and they are not sure how to deal with the news. One of them goes from the florist to the funeral home to the sorting of clothes. The other one tries to be moved by the one she has never been able to confide her emotions to. The last one, eccentric, offbeat, cries above all for her solitude. And the men in all this? They try to fill in the gaps. And there are many gaps. First of all, the three sisters have serious scores to settle between them and their mother's funeral offers them the perfect opportunity to give birth to old grudges. But what gnaws at them most of all is the fact that they only have fragmentary memories of their past. Ironically, their mother has died of Alzheimer's disease...

Teresa, the oldest, seems happy with her second marriage. She is an obsessive organizer, the kind of woman who feels she has to take charge of everything if she wants to get things done, and done right. She takes on much of the responsibility for the funeral arrangements as she took on the care of her mother once Alzheimer's disease began. She feels both resentful and protective of her sisters.

Mary, the youngest, is a tense woman who has succeeded in building a successful career as a doctor but has forgotten along the way to harmonize her intimate and personal life. She experiences a series of interactions with the ghost of her mother, with whom she discusses memory and their relationship.

Catherine, the youngest, is convinced that her birth was unwanted; she leads a life of wandering, traveling and experimenting in constant search of love and acceptance. She is vulnerable, hysterical and hypochondriac.

Vi, the mother, is mysterious, unknowable. We only see her image in the memory of her daughters. She was a glamorous woman when she was younger. She may not have been the best of mothers, not teaching her daughters certain things. There is a sense of a wasted life...

Mike is the star doctor with whom Mary has had a relationship for five years. He is driven by the desire to please everyone. He has a kind of doctorly detachment and his unreliability is glaring.

Frank is Teresa's husband and runs the health food supplement store with her. He is not satisfied with doing a job he doesn't believe in. He is a grumpy and kind bear who will open up and finally dare to admit to the world that he hates Woody Allen movies and that his dream is to open a pub...

To put on this show, you need a troupe. As soon as I read it, I felt the connivance between its very different characters.

How was the scenography developed?

The scenography imagined and proposed by Lionel Lesire is both realistic with its bed in the middle of the room as requested by the author and poetic because it takes into account the abstract elements of the situation. The presence of the dead mother, the crack in the house, the permanent view towards the cliffs and the sea... It gives us a very playful set in which the dramaturgy can blossom as well as we dreamed.

Interview with Lionel Lesire

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I am a visual artist and scenographer, I have been designing scenes and costumes for theater, dance and opera since 1992. At the moment I am working on several series: "golden mediations", "flowers of chaos" and "via crucis". Some of my efforts in these series can be seen hanging in the foyer and corridors of the theater.

What were your discussions with Fabrice about 'La Mémoire de l'eau'?

I work quite regularly with Fabrice Gardin, who in addition to being an author is also a visual artist, our discussions revolve around the dramaturgy, I try to define with him the space, the scene where the story he wants to tell will take place. It is very pleasant because we speak the same language.

How would you explain this scenography to the public?

I believe that in general there is no need to explain the scenography to the public, I believe that the public has a plastic intelligence and feels the scene. At the most we can evoke the origins of the reflection: here it is the house of the mother where the girls spent their childhood. The house is on the edge of the cliff and will soon disappear into the abyss. There are already cracks. The house is the past and that cannot be repaired. At most, we can understand it, accept it. Something is bent, cracked, unbalanced in the decor of this moment we are witnessing.

What do you like best about being a set designer?

The collaboration with the teams! In the theater, the spectators mostly see the actors at work, but in order for them to be highlighted, in order for them to shine, all sorts of trades are put to work, these craftsmen, these technicians, these artists, my job brings them all together. It is a transversal job.

What is a set designer's worst nightmare?

An accident. But in the theater there are words that we don't say, I like to believe that certain superstitions preserve us.

What is a set designer's greatest joy?

Mixing with the audience, incognito, on opening night and hearing the audience leave the room satisfied with the evening.

Which texts do you prefer in terms of scenography?

I like all repertoires, I like to laugh, to cry, to dream, to think, to bubble, to sigh... I think that what I like is the theater in the end.

Lionel Lesire was born in 1969 in Belgium. Awarded painter and engraver, he came to the theater as a painter at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. For a time assistant of scenographers like B. Dugardyn, J. Jara or R. Sabonghi, he designed his first sets and costumes for the theater in 1992.

In 2000, he created his first opera costumes with "Simone Boccanegra" by Verdi, directed by Stephen Lawless, production: New-Zealand festival in Wellington NZ.

Since then, he has designed more than a hundred productions for theater, dance and opera, including sets and costumes.

Before 'La Mémoire de l'eau', Lionel Lesire and Fabrice Gardin have already collaborated on '8 femmes' by Robert Thomas (TRG 2014, Tête d'Or in Lyon, 2015), 'Destin' by Fabrice Gardin (Festival de Spa, 2015, Les Riches-Claires, 2017), 'Un temps de chien' by Brigitte Buc (TRG, 2017), 'La Peste' by Albert Camus (TRG 2019, ATJV 2020) and 'Oleanna' by David Mamet (TRG, 2021).