Published on January 31, 2023

La Mémoire de l'eau, Théâtre des Galeries' new gem

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

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

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

"I wish you'd 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 reunite in the house where they spent their childhood, three women who are very different from each other.

Children never have the same childhood memories... When Teresa, Mary and Catherine reunite at the family home on the occasion of their mother's death, they quickly resume their little-girl bickering and teasing. All it takes is a few well-tempered whiskies and a few whiffs of illicit substances, and the homecoming turns into a delirious holiday. The past, thought to have been buried forever, suddenly resurfaces, bringing with it its share of secrets, lies and hysteria.

The Memory of Water is a magnificent story of ghosts: the ghost of Vi who presents herself to Mary, in search of vindication for the mother she once was; the ghosts, above all, of a childhood recuperated according to the needs of each. Who are we really? What do we weave into the fabric of our lives? What are we made of? How can we answer these fundamental questions without confusing illusion with reality?

The Memory of Water offers an acute analysis of human behavior. A sensitive analysis that's also ferociously funny, with some salty retorts.

An excellent English family comedy that is also a tender reflection on women's memories. Intense and surprising.

The Memory of Water is a play 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 Tyneside, Northumberland, England, in 1967. Married to Irish film-maker Eoin O'Callaghan, Shelagh Stephenson admits 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. Theater became her profession, but she didn't feel comfortable with it. She began writing short plays for radio, which were immediately bought, broadcast and appreciated. By 1996, when she wrote 'The Memory of Water', 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 her the 1996 Authors' Guild Award for Best Drama. The Memory of Water' premiered in 1996 at London's Hampstead Theatre. The play subsequently toured the world.

From 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 in the context of a family reunion on the occasion of a mother's 75th birthday. Then 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 own words, " a more universal character and allowed me to develop more introspective relationships between the characters and explore an important theme, that of the consequences, for women, of their mother's death. We see how they react to grief. But I also guess that memory has something to do with the personal stories that give meaning to our lives. "

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

She continues to work as a dramaturge 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 one that has the merit of making us laugh. I felt it struck the right balance between sadness, anger and comedy. Their mother has just died, and the three sisters gather at the family home for the funeral. This catalyzing event grows like a snowball over the course of the show, sweeping away everything in its path.

I was moved by the story of these sisters who don't tell themselves the same story. They had the same childhood and think they share a common past, but their memories of it are so different, filtered through individual memory and interpreted differently by each sister, shaped and embellished to such an extent that illusion has ended up replacing reality. Where does reality end and family myth begin?

It's as if they were fragments of their mothers, who in fact appear on stage in dialogue with one of them. I also found this method very appealing, as it allows us to hear her point of view and understand where the three daughters' very different characters come from.

 How would you define this type of writing?

It's both very realistic and very poetic. Very funny and very moving. The English have a gift for telling stories that move us without seeming to do so. We laugh softly at the ambient madness, we smile at their revanchist puns and, at the turn of a sentence, we are taken by an emotion because these are our sisters, our brothers, our family. Shelagh Stephenson offers an acute analysis of human behavior. A sensitive analysis that's also ferociously funny, with spicy retorts that make for a piquant play brimming with humor and relational twists and turns. It's effective, lively and intelligent.

 What can you say about the characters?

Their mother has died and they're not sure how to react to the news. One is a busybody, from florist to undertaker to sorting clothes. The other tries to get emotional for the woman to whom she has never been able to confide her emotions. The last, eccentric and offbeat, mourns above all her loneliness. And what about the men? They try to plug the gaps. And there are plenty of them. First of all, the three sisters have some serious scores to settle, and their mother's funeral provides the perfect opportunity to give birth to old grudges. But what's really eating away at them is the fact that they have only fragmentary memories of their past. Ironically, their mother has died of Alzheimer's...

Teresa, the eldest, seems happy with her second marriage. She's an obsessive organizer, the kind of woman who feels obliged to take charge of everything if she wants things done, and done well. She assumes much of the responsibility for funeral arrangements, just as she assumed the care of her mother once Alzheimer's disease began. She feels both resentful and protective of her sisters.

Mary, the youngest daughter, 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 daughter, is convinced that her birth was unwanted; she leads a life of wandering, traveling and experimentation, in constant search of love and acceptance. She's vulnerable, hysterical and hypochondriacal.

Vi, the mother, is mysterious and elusive. We only see her image in the memories of her daughters. She was a glamorous woman when she was younger. Perhaps she wasn't the best of mothers, failing to teach her daughters certain things. It feels like a wasted life...

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

Frank is Teresa's husband and runs the health food supplements store with her. He's not happy doing a job he doesn't believe in. He's a sweet, grumpy 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 could feel the chemistry between these very different characters.

 How did you go about designing the scenography?

The set design imagined and proposed by Lionel Lesire is both realistic, with the bed in the middle of the room as requested by the author, and poetic, taking 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 all adds up to a very playful set in which the drama can unfold as well as we dreamed.

Interview with Lionel Lesire

 Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I'm a visual artist and set designer, and since 1992 I've been designing stages and costumes for theater, dance and opera. I'm currently working on several series: "Médiations dorées", "Les fleurs du 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, and our discussions revolve around dramaturgy. I try to define with him the space, the stage where the story he wants to tell will take place. It's very pleasant because we speak the same language.

 How would you explain this scenography to the public?

I don't think there's usually any need to explain the scenography to the audience; I think the audience has a plastic intelligence and feels the scene. At most, we can evoke the origins of the reflection: here, it's the mother's house where the girls spent their childhood. The house is on the edge of the cliff and will soon disappear, too, into the abyss. There are already cracks. The house is the past, and that can't be fixed. The most we can do is understand and 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?

Teamwork! In the theater, spectators mostly see the actors at work, but to show them off to their best advantage, in the spotlight, so that they can shine, all sorts of trades are called upon, these craftsmen, these technicians, these artists, my job brings them all together. It's a cross-disciplinary job.

 What's a set designer's worst nightmare?

An accident. But in the theater, there are some words you just don't say, and I like to think that certain superstitions protect us.

 What's a set designer's greatest joy?

Mixing with the audience, incognito, on opening night and hearing the audience leave the hall 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 what I like is theater in the end.

Lionel Lesire was born in Belgium in 1969. An award-winning painter and engraver, he came to the theater as a painter at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. For a time, he worked as an assistant to set designers such as B. Dugardyn, J. Jara and R. Sabonghi. Sabonghi, he designed his first theatrical sets and costumes in 1992.

In 2000, he designed his first opera costumes for Verdi's "Simone Boccanegra", directed by Stephen Lawless, produced by the New-Zealand festival in Wellington NZ.

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

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