The Whole Damn Cake
Brecht gets the Brechtian treatment in Veronica Dyas’ “My Son My Son,” a new play inspired by Bertolt Brecht's The Mother. Yet Dyas’ tale of a single mother and her son living in Dublin’s gentrified Liberties owes more than a passing nod to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, being told in a series of flashbacks moving from the present and ending where it all began. Yet unlike Pinter with Betrayal, the insights yielded in "My Son My Son" might not be quite what Dyas was actually going for. As is always the case with Brecht, politics is never far away, with “My Son My Son” feeling like a party political broadcast on behalf of the communist or socialist left, waving its bright red flag every opportunity it gets. Yet neither socialism nor communism emerge in a particularly flattering light. Going back incrementally through periods of seven years in the life of the mother might want to suggest the imprint of trauma and how nothing really changes for the oppressed working-class of Meath Street, but one of the things we seem to learn in this learning play is that socialism, in particular, has failed to effect any significant improvement, politically or practically, in the intervening decades while never really holding itself accountable as to why. Just one of the many contradictions that affect Dyas’ ambitious “My Son My Son,” which ultimately preaches to the politically converted, by way of well worn jargon and all too familiar platitudes, standing in stark contrast with Dyas’ excellent portrayal of the lived experiences of the indomitable women from Dublin’s Liberties.
If Dyas talks about how the language of the working class is really not their own, the same could be said for the politicised language of “My Son My Son,” something Dyas as much as admits at one point. Slogans and familiar buzzwords don’t so much couch as smother the very problems they attempt to address, leaving only a jargon heavy language behind. One that reverts, and refers, back to itself, referencing problems it seems unable to solve which conveniently justify its linguistic and political existence. A situation not helped by Dyas seeming to be unwilling, or unable, to select what is useful and disregard the unessential, throwing everything into the political mix, as if afraid of leaving something or someone out. Yet with everything endlessly coming at you, like Powerpoint slides filled with mountainous reams of text, “My Son My Son” risks becoming political white noise. Indeed, even its most pressing arguments concerning the plight of women, which are foregrounded above everything else, soon become subsumed in an endless socialist drone which many a die-hard socialist might well struggle to endure. Ultimately, the effect is less than Epic, feeling less like discovering a snappy and succinct Communist Manifesto, and more like being walloped repeatedly about the head with a hard back edition of Das Kapital.
As a result “My Son My Son” seems deeply disingenuous and polarised. Even the title reflects this with the eponymous, invisible son having no substance other than as a device to display his mother’s political ideology and problems. Yet set against this political yawn to arms, “My Son My Son” also contains some of the richest, smartest, most revealing and persuasive observations of life as lived by women in the Liberties, far more politically potent, and far more revealing as a work of social history, than all the overtly political arguments contained therein. Indeed, at times Dyas’ writing is sublime in this regard. But once again Dyas seems unable to edit or select the salient detail from the sluggish, with “My Son My Son” offering less a slice of Liberties life so much as the whole damn cake, impossible to eat in one sitting, yet which Dyas almost gets away with so tasty is her writing at times.
Throughout, Dyas as director offsets her realist leanings using Brechtian techniques with varying degrees of success. Using herself as a confessional commentator, along with Leah Moore as The Creator of Music Onstage, results in commentaries, songs, and interruptions ranging from the sharp to the lamentable, including some painful song choices such as a cringe-makingly obvious In The Ghetto. Yet where Dyas unequivocally nails it is in her casting. Lauren Larkin as a single mother at the heart of a community, aware of the solution to everyone’s problems but her own, is an absolute revelation. Ericka Roe as her childhood friend, Mary, proves to be equally compelling, as is a magnificent Amy Conroy as a wildly diverse supporting cast, bringing pure theatrical gold to the table. Together, Larkin, Roe, and Conroy’s chemistry is palpable and irresistible, and far more potent than anything “My Son My Son’s” Brechtian alienation effect has to offer. For if Brechtian in design and intent, “My Son My Son’s” realism proves to be its real strength, politically and theatrically. And textually too, forcing Dyas to abandon well worn socialist slogans in favour of an honest language of her own with which to convey, and comment upon, life as lived by women in the ever changing Liberties. Something which Dyas does marvellously well, her need for editing aside.
As it stands, “My Son My Son” fails politically on its own terms, suggesting socialism as a failed experiment, like Great Britain in the late 1970s, or communist Russia under Stalin. A politics of the past speaking in the language of nostalgia, one needing to re-examine itself if it wants to embrace the future rather than repeating the same endless rhetoric, as if hoping that by saying something enough times will eventually make it stick. A socialism whose politics should serve the Liberties rather than having the Liberties serve its politics, as seems all too often to be the case in “My Son My Son.” Which also makes painfully plain that Brecht is not always the best way to go when dealing with politics. That sometimes people getting their hair done, or giving directions to a tourist, or arguing with a consecrated virgin, can speak far more powerfully, politically, and eloquently than volumes of well worn, political rhetoric.
“My Son My Son” by Veronica Dyas runs at Project Arts Centre until May 26, transferring to the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray on May 30 and the Axis Arts Centre, Ballymun on May 31
For further information, visit Project Arts Centre, Mermaid Arts Centre, or Axis Arts Centre.