SICK! Festival of Contemporary Performance Art produced by contemporary performance organisation the Basement plays in Brighton from 1- 16 March. John O'Donoghue saw Jochem Stavenuiter’s tale of what happened when his mother Eleonora had a stroke
Imagine going out for the evening, having a few drinks with friends, then setting off for home with your best mate. As you get towards your flat your pal stops outside a hospital and beckons you to come inside. Puzzled, you follow them. The receptionist recognises you and gives you a warm welcome. A nurse comes out of a lift and asks if you had a nice evening, if you want a shower, or if you’d like to go straight to bed.
In Jochem Stavenuiter’s Eleonora this scary scenario brings home to the audience what was a daily occurrence for his mother after she had two strokes in her forties. Stavenuiter chooses to tell of his mother’s memory less, her subsequent institutionalisation, and how this affected the family as a kind of shaggy dog story.
On a stage littered with chairs – wooden kitchen chairs, comfy frontroom armchairs, black and steel low-slung chairs – Stavenuiter draws us in to the tale. He speaks warmly to the audience, welcomes us to The Basement, and plays us the French chanson, Eleonora on his big boom box. This was his mother’s favourite song - her name was Eleonora – and suddenly he is a fifteen year old boy in Holland. His father is getting a divorce, he’s moving his girlfriend into the family home, and Jochem is going to see his mother regularly at her new home – an institution for people who’ve had strokes.
His mother now has a short term memory of ten minutes. She can still speak French fluently, can remember songs, and her life before the strokes. But she can’t quite figure out where she is. Eleonora used to be in a choir, she had been a school teacher, a director of her amateur dramatics society. So sometimes when Jochem comes to see her she thinks her follow patients are actors. He shows us what some of these characters were like – the man with the metre long drool hanging from his mouth, the woman who kept rubbing the her hand on the table-top, the man who had been a banker, desperate to know the code that would release him from his incarceration.
Stavenuiter loops backwards and forwards, layering the show with straightforward story-telling, dramatic sketches of characters he met when he went to visit Eleonora, songs played on the boom box. He recalls his mother with warmth and affection, sometimes with frustration, overall with a kind of awe.
For one night when she was coming back from her choir practice the taxi took her to the wrong institution. She had been transferred to a psychiatric unit where she was having tests. But when she was dropped at reception they had no record of her. So she wandered off into the night. Somehow she managed to travel the 35km back to the family home, and arrived foot sore and tired in the small hours of the morning. Of course, because she has only a short term memory of the past ten minutes, she couldn’t tell Jochem how she had got there.
This puzzle enacts the larger puzzle of Eleonora’s strokes and what they have done to her. On the one hand she’s still Jochem’s mother with all the old memories they share. On the other she’s a patient in an institution, with a damaged brain, confused, and in one very affecting moment in the show, afraid. What is the code, I thought, what is the solution to the puzzle, who is Eleonora?
Stavenuiter and his director Hans Man in ‘t Veld make a virtue of the makeshift process that led to the piece. They met once a week and in’t Veld got Stavenuiter to tell him his story. The chairs came from the classroom – in’t Veld teaches directors as well as directing himself – where they met. I couldn’t help thinking that the chairs reflected the various roles Eleonora occupied in life – wife, mother, teacher – and that their upended, scattered, provisional appearance on the stage represented where her strokes had left her.
Stavenuiter shows us the scary new world his mother suddenly found herself in with warmth and tenderness. A moving, engaging piece.
Eleonora is part of the Sick! Festival. For details see www.thebasement.uk.com