Last night I went to Mudchute, and saw a brilliant play.
The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is a play written and devised by Roisin Rae, for and with Prams in the Hall. It's been on this week at The Space, a fringe theatre on the Isle of Dogs with a fabulous bar.
Prams in the Hall is a theatre company that explicitly aims to be inclusive to people with children. They offer actors, directors and writers the option of having their children with them in the rehearsal space, and also offer flexible working hours. For audiences, they put on watch-with-baby performances, although it's crucial to stress that their work is for adults, not for children.
The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor is about a busy mum who is also an artist. She has not been able to work for six years — they have three children, whom she looks after while their father goes out to work. Out of the blue, she is asked to contribute to an exhibition, and desperately wants to make two new pieces, although she only has two months. Her husband encourages her to paint, and she tries, but cannot make progress while she is at home. Eventually she goes AWOL in order to get the work done, and refuses to say when she will be coming home. The exhibition opens, and she can glimpse greater success if she can stay the course. When her husband shows up with the kids, she tells him to take them home — she wouldn't bring them to his office. When interviewed she is categorial — she doesn't see why she has to justify her drive to work as an artist, and she doesn't care what others think of her. The interviewer is clearly shocked and disapproving.
Yet underground, her other inner life, her life as a mother, is also working on her, and eventually she can stand it no longer. She comes to her tight-lipped mother-in-law's house, desperate to see her children again. Her husband is distant and cold; her littlest child cries and turns away from her. She leans forward to hold the child to her, and the play suddenly ends.
What I loved about this piece was that it fluently combined experimentalism with naturalism. The three children were played — very well — by adult actors; the son and the father were played by the same actor. This was a lovely piece of defamiliarization: something like using puppets or masks in its break with reality, but also strangely realistic in its observation (adults are just large children?). The dialogue and action, when it focused on family life, was at moments reminiscent of Outnumbered, and just as funny, but it particularly drew out the bittersweet experience of the frustrated mother-artist.
It didn't ignore the husband/father figure, and he was presented as fundamentally loving and supportive of his artist wife, but he was part of the problem, to the extent that he could not understand the process of creation. When domestic life started to fall apart, as Sophie concentrated more on her work, he immediately reverted to defining 'work' as activity with financial recompense — something one does to pay the mortgage, with 'real life' going on elsewhere, and demanded that she get a 'little job'.
For an artist, life and work are particularly difficult to separate, since life supplies the work. Creative 'work' also requires an enormous amount of time, that appears to others to be wasted, with intense, exclusive bursts of productivity at inconvenient moments. This does not mean that all artists work in this Romantic way — many writers and artists keep regular working hours, and Twyla Tharp talks of this in The Creative Habit as the need for rituals which help artists enter the creative space.
Even if an artist physically works standard hours, however, she remains preoccupied by her work even when she is not actively constructing it. Like a mother, you cannot leave art behind as you can most jobs. The great problem for artist-mothers, then, is that making — gestating — a baby is akin to the process of making art, but actually producing a baby, unlike producing a book or a canvas or a film or a sculpture, which is the end of a process, is the rudest interruption of creative identity ever devised.
It does not mean that female artists do not love their children. Precisely the opposite — they are desperate because of that love. That mother love, like ivy, actually starves them of the nourishment they need to go on being what they also need to be — artists.
The outstanding device in this play was to represent the internal artist-mother split in Sophie by means of two actresses, one blonde and English (Roisin Rae), the other dark and Columbian (Elisa Terren).
At first, this split seemed neat and clear: the artist-self was the dark, foreign daemon, constantly seeking to reclaim the mother-self. The mother-self, controlled, contained, doing all the right things, chatted to the other mums at ballet, tried to have a conversation at the playground, listened to the litanies of classes, activities, failings, successes of other people's children, while trying not to cry with boredom. Occasionally she lost it when the kids got too much — always painful, always understandable.
However as the play went on, and Sophie's inner life took over, the artist bursting forth unstoppably from her like an alien, the mother-self went into decline. Sophie as artist had a new, inescapable inner life: the inner life of the mother, who cannot unmake her children or her connection to them, which is like invisible elastic, shorter or longer, but unbreakable. In the end, that wilting inner self resurged — she could not just be an artist, Sophie needed her children in order to be whole.
The play ends on this problematic — it tackles the question of social judgement by staging its ironies, and much of the audience's laughter is rueful recognition. But I wanted a second act — not necessarily an answer to the problems the play threw up, but to see what happened next. Did Sophie go on producing? Did her husband accept that 'supporting' his wife's work actually meant sharing the housework? Did he get over his preoccupation with the mortgage? Did he start to become more creative himself? Did they learn to work together? Were the children actually affected by her time away, and in what ways? Did Sophie compromise with a part-time job — would that help her creativity at all, or simply impede it? There are clearly as many answers as families, which is why no social policy or social judgement ever fits completely. But the play made enough universal points for me to be disappointed not to have more of it. I know that the tension the play identifies, that conflict between the artist and the mother, is permanent, that it is not reconcilable. At its broadest, it is the conflict between the mother and the world. Never again will she have 'nothing to lose'. At all times she stands to lose everything. She is for ever vulnerable. Maternity has taught me to accept that both inner and inter-personal conflict exists, and cannot be eradicated, but it has not yet taught me how to live with that.
I loved The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, and the work that Prams in the Hall are doing — they refuse to make concessions to the pragmatism that sees women so often excluded from all kinds of cultural spaces once they are mothers, or confined to marginal strands of it ('Activity Half Term at the Tate!' — oh God, shoot me now). May they experiment, innovate, evolve and thrive.