Occasionally the hectic nature of theatre booking throws up some delightfully apposite pairings. A fallow period has meant that, by chance rather by design, Everyman at the National has been followed by Like Mother, Like Daughter at the Battersea Arts Centre. It would be difficult to find two plays that better juxtapose the potential of theatre. Everyman was theatre as spectacle. Vast and impressive; the video and sound design had a forceful muscularity that carried through the choreography and into Chiwetel Ejiofor’s powerful central performance. Like Mother, Like Daughter was theatre as communal activity. All theatre is staged and performed but here there is no interest in bombast or special effects. It has confidence in the minimalism of its approach, and in the power of the stories it has to tell.
For all of Everyman’s impressive showmanship, Like Mother, Like Daughter is the more radical. It asks question of the form that a theatrical experience should take, and of the functional purpose of the medium. It opens with an informal gallery containing a series of mood boards identifying the performers, their shared lives and the rehearsal process. The audience are encouraged to browse the profiles and to learn more about the background to the relationships between the mother/daughter pairings. It is theatre that puts the viewer in control. We choose how much information we want to hold about those taking part rather than having their stories hidden behind the paywall of a programme, or delivered directly to us during the performance process.
We then watch the non-actors, real-life mother/daughter pairings, answer randomly assigned questions. Is this theatre or just voyeurism? Is it therapy or is it drama? Watching it, the answer is both. The reactions to hearing the question, the revealing nature of the answers – for the audience this is pure theatre, for the performer it must surely be a form of therapy.
The setting is minimal. During the show, the participants sit round a dining table and the audience around them. It feels intrusive – like an ad executive watching a focus group – but it does not faze those taking part, who react with good humour and a complete openness to questions thrown at them. The age dynamics, and how they shape responses and how they interact with the audience are fascinating. It covers teenagers through to those old enough to remember wartime Britain – some are used to sharing their lives on social media whilst others come from more a more closed era
It ends with a communal meal. Audience members join with participants. It is an opportunity for reflection and to ask further questions of those taking part. The understated simplicity, the lack of pretence and the emotional honesty that comes from non-actors sharing their real lives helps lower the barriers between viewer and performer, creates a discussion and makes it a genuinely participatory experience.