The Book of Mothers

by Eleanor Tan
Festival of Women: N.O.W. 2020

What does it mean to be a mother? Is having a child a necessary part of the female experience? How does one reconcile the idea of maintaining individual autonomy when one's body is taken over by another being?

These are some of the questions that Eleanor Tan grapples with in her debut play. Presented as an audio recording as part of the all-digital Festival of Women: N.O.W. by T:>Works, the action revolves around Louise (Koh Wan Ching), a young woman whose fractured relationship with her own mother leaves her deeply conflicted about her pregnancy. Despite the best efforts of her husband Matt, she can't muster up any excitement about bringing life into this world. 

Louise's story is punctuated by excerpts from a self-described Book of Mothers. This collection of largely biblical texts foreground the idea of an ideal wife and mother: someone who is patient, attentive, steadfast and submissive. It doesn't escape us that these are passages about women written by men. What right do they have, one may ask, to dictate how a woman should behave in this day and age? The play thus seeks to interrogate these gendered, traditional assumptions of motherhood.

It's a pity that Tan's writing simply fails to engage. Her language has the stilted, formal cadences of early Singaporean English dramas and does not feel especially authentic for its modern setting. Supporting characters such as a bitchy best friend come across as mere filler. It's also hard to empathise with a central character who spends most of the play simply not knowing what she wants. In a dramatic sequence, Louise tricks Matt into believing that she lost the baby, prompting a bitter altercation and temporary separation. Given her general apathy throughout the play, it's hard to see why she would do something this cruel in front of her friends to an obviously loving partner.  

There are various strands in the plot that are also hard to follow, a fact not helped by the audio format which prevents us from seeing any of the actors. It is not especially clear that Lucy, Louise's mother in a nursing home, is barely able to speak due to her advanced dementia and that all the heated exchanges between her and Louise are imagined ones. In a somewhat confusing dream sequence, Louise's unborn child meets Lucy to discuss her past - two characters who would never have been able to communicate in real life. It is  strongly hinted that Lucy is on her deathbed but this is not apparent by the end of the play.

Director Edith Podesta works with singer-songwriter Inch Chua to create a delicate yet powerful soundscape that augments the text. Chua responds to the actors’ voices and creates an almost three-dimensional quality to the piece, following each character as they are speaking so we feel as if we are standing right next to them. Subtle aural textures are used to distinguish the ethereal Book of Mothers sequences from the mainstream domestic drama. The cast do their best with the material, bringing colour and nuance to the scenes. There is especially good work by Karen Tan as the cantankerous Lucy and Brendon Fernandez as the solicitous Matt.

The Book of Mothers has its heart in the right place and offers valuable food for thought about modern motherhood and the role of women. However, in its current format, the text feels too unwieldy to truly make an impact.

I discuss this production in more detail in the Arts Equator theatre podcast, together with playwright, poet and editor Nabilah Said and theatre educator Matthew Lyon.

The Crystalwords score: 2/5


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