revew: RashDash – Oh Mother
text: Abbi Greenland with Helen Goalen & Penny Greenland/
devisers: Helen Goalen, Abbi Greenland, Penny Greenland & Simone Seales/
composers: Becky Wilkie & Simone Seales/
set & costume design: Oli Townsend/
lighting design: Katharine Williams/
12 – 28/05/2022//
In her book ‘Feminism Interrupted’, Lola Olufemi asks us to Imagine this: A world where the quality of your life is not determined by how much money you have. You do not have to sell your labour to survive. Labour is not tied to capitalism, profit or wage… The nuclear family does not exist; children are raised collectively; reproduction takes on new meanings. In this world, the way we carry out dull domestic labour is transformed and nobody is forced to rely on their partner economically to survive.
Oh Mother is a play about reproductive labour and a portrait of motherhood. Becoming a mother is at once weird and absurd and extreme, while being at the same time a kind of sublimation of the social expectations pushed upon people with uteruses. Oh Mother is chaotic and feverish; its protagonists are fighting to unravel what part of their new role they are in control of, which new categories they are volunteering themselves to be part of and which are sprung upon them.
Oh Mother is a play about category shifting. Becoming a mother is becoming a different person- with new social relationships, new material conditions, new anxieties. I’m not a woman or a parent, I’m going to talk about this all in terms I understand. When you change jobs, it changes you. My life is defined by the labour I’m able to be paid for – it dictates what I’m anxious about, when I have free time, how much money I have, where I’m able to rent, where I’m able to shop, who I socialise with. The conditions of your labour dictate the conditions of your life. Unless you’re upper class you have a material relationship to your own labour and childrearing is labour.
At the same time, the relationship these mothers have with their children is defined by the care they give them, and the overwhelming, all-consuming responsibility they have for their lives and wellbeing. Which is turned on its head when a mother and grandmother reaches old age. Now she is in need of care. Now her understanding of the world is diminished as her mind changes and her child must take action to care for her, to build a safe world around her. Reproductive labour is not just the raising of children; it is the maintenance of the family, the preservation of social and material conditions from the home.
And category shifting itself is a responsibility of Oh Mother’s protagonists; it falls to them to interpret and navigate who their mothers are to them, who their children are to them. Part of reproductive labour is not just the physical tasks, but the emotional-logistical work of deciding what everyone’s role in that labour is. In one scene, there is an anxious tension, as a mother’s partner tries to give her agency in deciding how they manage their parenting. It’s a mess – at which point does taking initiative overlap with not giving her a say? At what point does taking her lead become burdening her with all the decision-making?
There’s a poster made by See Red Women’s Workshop: twenty panels, 4×5, nineteen of which show the domestic labour of a woman over 24 hours: getting the kids up; feeding them and her husband; laundry; shopping; knitting. The eighth panel shows her husband in the pub, speaking the only words of the poster: ‘My wife doesn’t work.’ Oh Mother never pretends child-rearing isn’t labour. The mothers love their children, they love loads of aspects of being mothers, they love a lot of aspects of having mothers too – but being a mother in this play means doing labour. Part of the argument of the show is to demonstrate the value of that labour, and to try to unpick how those asked to do it feel about it all.
The expectations of women and mothers bleed into the world, wielded against those who are neither. Simone Seales plays a nonbinary character whose mother persistently attempts to shift into the category of ‘daughter’. They, too must navigate that reproductive labour-space of refusing the category, of asserting themself and willfully defining their domestic relationships. This kind of labour can be invited, sure, but in many cases it is not, and cannot be avoided. When one has chosen to be a mother, the voluntary and involuntary labour tangle and it is difficult to see where you stand.
RashDash’s work always makes me think about revolution. Because look, reproductive labour isn’t just an abstract concept – it’s a dry word which is easily applied, which can give the impression of things being tidy, categorised. It’s labour which is coerced by capitalism, yes. But it is also motivated by love. Oh Mother is a play about finding the emotional connections and the revolutionary motivations behind reproductive labour. Being a mother and falling into some of the traps laid by capital is not defeat. Struggling to unpick where your decisions are deliberate is not defeat. Oh Mother is an optimistic show because it believes in the revolutionary potential of care. It is a show which believes in the revolutionary potential of mothers – who take on more than they thought they could, who become people they never thought they would, but who remain themselves.
Oh Mother is messy. It doesn’t make clean conclusions but it makes clear gestures. And I go to the theatre to see the world complicated. When Oh Mother opens, the stage is littered with mess – balls, used nappies, toys – and Abbi and Helen scramble across the stage to tidy everything up, clear it all away and maintain the pretence that there is some order to the points we begin from. We are never prepared. The beginning of things comes sooner than we expect and our success depends on our capacity to make do, and to hold dear those things which make life bearable.