In the 20th century, women’s social, economic and political standing in many parts of the world improved immeasurably. From winning the right to vote to the social transformations flowing from the postwar period and the Women’s Liberation movement, none of this was achieved without struggle.
However, the struggle was not just with the opposite sex, but often with older women whose social upbringing did not allow them to accept change, causing unprecedented rifts between mothers and daughters, aunts, grandmothers and sometimes even younger and older sisters.
Charlotte Keatley’s “My Mother Said I Never Should” was a groundbreaking attempt to dramatize this theme and won the George Devine Award and Manchester Evening News Best Play Award in 1987, and was nominated by the National Theater 2000 survey of actors, journalists, playwrights and theater professionals as one of the 100 plays of the century.
In the opening scene of SIS theater company’s premiere of the Japanese translation of “My Mother Said I Never Should,” written by then 27-year-old Charlotte Keatley in 1987, four little girls in white smocks with huge white bows in their hair walk on to the simple set. They start playing and chatting innocently until one has the idea that she should kill her mother. Soon they are all planning how they could do it, and in clear, childlike metaphors for transcending old customs and values excitedly and naively start to imagine the new freedoms this would allow them.
Having set a clear motif with that opening vignette, the actresses then shed their smocks and bows to portray four generations of females from a working-class family from Keatley’s own gritty and down-to-earth hometown of Manchester, northwest England.
So the story continues and the play’s dramaturgy moves between past and present as it explores with sardonic humor and insight the relationships between the women, and the different kinds of generational clashes that the social upheavals of the 20th century impose upon them.
Midori Kiuchi plays Doris, the matriarch, a daughter of the Victorian era who has lived through two world wars and spent her life making the house spotless and keeping up with the Joneses. By contrast, after World War II, her daughter Margaret (Eriko Watanabe) ignores the sneers of the neighbors and marries Ken, a GI posted to England, with whom she has a daughter before once again breaking the prevailing social norm by forsaking the life of a housewife to take a job as a typist.
Their daughter, Jackie (Shinobu Otake), is just the right age to lap up youth’s newfound freedoms and affluence in the Swinging ’60s and then the ’70s. But Jackie accidentally gets pregnant, splits with her boyfriend Graham and while still in her teens gives birth to a daughter, Rosie (Yasuko Tomita) out of wedlock.
Jackie wants more out of life than to scrimp along as a single mother, so she hands Rosie over to Margaret to bring up and carves out a life for herself as an artist and the “big sister” her own daughter comes to idolize for her “cool” lifestyle. Meanwhile, Jackie’s mother Margaret assumes the role of Rosie’s mother.
Staged in the cozy Aoyama Amphitheater, huge models of cross-stich frames representing domesticity hang above the stage, while the ropes interweave to perhaps symbolize a genetic chain. With minimal props, in the shape of an upright piano representing “home sweet home” and simple pieces of furniture easily rearranged to become either Doris’, Margaret’s or Jackie’s house, this production by the SIS Company, economically directed by Katsuhide Suzuki, also benefits from the four actresses each being a star in her own right.
While supremely competent, unrestrained acting by Kiuchi (Doris) and Tomita (Rosie) at either end of the generational scale soundly anchors the piece, Watanabe as Margaret and even more, Otake as Jackie, add real zest with their highly charged performances.
As the play proceeds through episodes from the women’s lives with reminiscences, social change, motherhood and the business of aging never far from the fore, the core of the conflict comes with the revelation of Rosie’s real parentage and the taunts and confusions this unleashes.
On the way, though, there are plenty of laughs (too many, actually, as some in the audience seemed determined to giggle every time the famed comic actress Watanabe opened her mouth, whatever she was saying).
Set against well-sketched social contexts, there are also some universal inner voices to be heard, as when the now aged Doris toward the end of the play looks back on her unblemished life, while regretting her sternness and reluctance to show her love more openly to her late husband like “young couples do nowadays.”
All in all, there’s a lot to be drawn by anyone (men included) from Keatley’s excellently crafted four-generational work — not least that while history books may suggest that changes take place rapidly, social progress at the mundane, working-class level can take a long, long time and be a painful as well as rewarding phenomenon for individuals to be part of.
Though it could be said that Otake’s performance slightly upstaged the others and some of the British cultural references such as Christmas card customs and Victorian-era family photo albums may have been lost on many in the audience, that would be to split hairs about a play and and production whose basic themes touch us all.