Review: Die Moeder is immersive and compelling viewing- brilliant and innovative production of Florian Zeller’s The Mother

Die Moeder by Florian Zeller (performed in Afrikaans with English surtitles)

Where and when: Baxter Flipside  April 12 to 29, 2023 at 7.30pm, with Saturday matinees at 3.30pm
Director: Christaan Olwagen (he has also translated Christopher Hampton’s English translation of Florian Zeller’s The Mother into Afrikaans)
Cast: Sandra Prinsloo, Dawid Minnaar, Ludwig Binge and Ashley de Lange
Book: Webtickets see

French playwright Florian Zeller’s acclaimed play, The Mother has been translated by Christiaan Olwagen into Afrikaans, as Die Moeder. Olwagen is also directing. After picking up a clutch of awards on the Afrikaans festival circuit, Die Moeder, is on in the Baxter, Cape Town, with South African theatrical doyenne, Sandra Prinsloo taking on the role as Anna, the mother who feels that she has passed her sell-by-date of usefulness, as she faces the so called ‘empty nest’ syndrome at home and an emotionally absent husband who may or may not be having an affair. It is a brilliant production. This is brilliant theatre. Die Moeder is a kitchen-sink drama of the absurd on uppers – playing out in a streamlined, sleek, chic, glossy white kitchen in the full volume space of the Baxter’s Flipside Theatre in Cape Town. Sandra Prinsloo is mesmerising. The cast works seamlessly as an ensemble, containing and restraining Anna, who is unhinged, existing on a cocktail of pills and booze. She has lost her grip of reality as she grasps for a connection with her son (Ludwig Binge) who has left home and hearth to live his own life with his girlfriend, Elodie (Ashley de Lange). In the play, he returns or does he? Elodie heckles and taunts Anna or does she? Is she really there or is it all figments of Anna’s imagination? This review contains production spoilers.

Die Moeder is part of Florian Zeller family trilogy of psychological dramas: The Father, The Son and The Mother. I saw The Father (performed in English – Christopher Hampton’s translation), in November 2016, Cape Town at The Fugard (the theatre no longer exists). I saw the 2020 film version (directed by Zeller and adapted with Christopher Hampton ), starring Anthony Hopkins which was nominated for numerous Academy Awards and won two – for best actor –Hopkins and best adapted screenplay. The Father pivoted on an axis of a man losing his grip of reality, with the advance of dementia. We the audience were not sure what he was remembering or experiencing; if it was a ‘real’ memory or a fiction or a combination.  Narratives spooled out before us but the shifts were subtle as we tried to splice it together- puzzling it out -psychologically. In Die Moeder, Zeller does the same – using repetition and replay of narrative but the dissonance is heightened. It is not understated. From the first scene, we see Anna reeling, thrashing across the stage in utter desperation to make sense of her life, her world as a woman who has lost her identity which was fed by her usefulness as a nurturer and carer for her offspring who have left her alone with a husband who is emotionally and often physically absent and in her mind, is having an affair. We do not know if this is the situation as Anna is an unreliable narrator.

The Afrikaans translation for Die Moeder, by Christiaan Olwagen is like a character in its own right. He translated the play from Christopher Hampton’s English translation. I cannot imagine watching this play in English. Even the word Moeder, resonates for me- ‘I will  moer you – thrash you – beat you up- murder you’.  In this production – Anna is on the rampage as she thrashes about. There are English surtitles beamed on to a screen but one hears the Afrikaans and even for those with limited Afrikaans, there is layering of language – what we hear and we read on the screen. Not every word is translated- for example, the young girlfriend, mutters ‘hello’ to Anna – that is on the surtitles – but when she speaks- she says ‘hello Tannie’- dripping with deprecating loathing innuendo and sarcasm. The word ‘tannie’ is loaded in each delivery and here we see the hand, ear, eye of Olwagen in the way the dialogue slaps from what we hear and what we read and how it is punctuated by bursts of music (including French and English songs- fabulous soundtrack – injecting fun into the play). Prinsloo is a maestro in the way she delivers each word – laden with yearning, frustration, anger and despair.  It is not just a script and a narrative but the way she rolls and punches out each word.

In terms of the Afrikaans translation, there are some references to South Africa. The husband is going to a seminar in Pretoria. There are the ‘tannie’ references but otherwise it could be anywhere. It is a genius adaption – the specifics of place – through language – Afrikaans and references which are quintessentially South African but the production sits as a universal story.

I loved the use of camera to beam footage of onto the screen- close-ups, objects, interactions between protagonists.  We see the eggs that Anna is making and it is presented like an offering or a memorial to what she once was. We see her face- close-up-the anguish and fear. We see a close-up of the tablets – her medication. It is more than simply a live-feed of aspects of the performers and props. The moving images present alternative angles and perspectives of what we are hearing, seeing and experiencing. Which is the ‘correct’ one? We don’t know.  Olwagen has worked extensively in film and this use of live-feed footage imparts a sense of filmic action into a play which could have been static and mannered.  The camera person is rather intrusive to the protagonists, especially to Anna. He is in her face. As she is stripped and drained of everything, he is there recording, filming, screening everything onto the screen.   The intimate has become public.  This pings for me the way people are filming the most intimate of events – birthdays, celebrations, funerals – and blithely sharing the footage on social media- without any filters. They use props and play happy families and share with all about their lives. It seems that there is no ‘private’ anymore. This comes across for me profoundly in this production. At the coalface of the untethering of Anna, from her family, it is all being captured in camera. We are watching the process of archiving her pain. The use of the live-feed of film is integral to the way the narrative splays out. I loved this innovative use of film.

This play riffs, for me, off Tennessee Williams plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire. Like Blanche, Anna is desperately trying to remain young, beautiful, desirable and needed. It is an exquisitely crafted script and this production in Afrikaans, under the direction of Christiaan Olwagen with the extraordinary Sandra Prinsloo and the cast, makes Die Moeder essentially viewing. “Grief is the enemy of life” is the leitmotif. Die Moeder is wrapped in grief but under Olwagen’s direction, his Afrikaans script with its quirkiness and visceral language, the live-feed film on screen, the grief is lifted by flashes of full throttled mirth, absurdity (watch out for the bears) and sheer zaniness. The Mother’s Day scene is hilarious and is achingly full of rupture. It’s a play which is unerringly voyeuristic. The live feed intensifies that voyeurism.  However, it is also cathartic in the way that it makes us engage with a lot – the ties that bind us -that we must let go and let others live their lives. So, although this play may be associated with empty nest syndrome, I think that it offers a broader sense of refection of what makes us tick as individuals and the need to centre ourselves in our own image, not through the gaze of others. I loved this production: Die Moeder is immersive and compelling viewing; unflinching in its gaze of being consumed and spat out by motherhood and domesticity and laugh-out-loud funny in its absurdity and zany manifestation on the stage floor. The costumes are fun (see the red dresses). The soundtrack of songs is fun. I was humming and bopping along. Do not miss.

Tabling the family: Sandra Prinsloo, Ludwig Binge, Ashley de lange, in Die Moeder Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht. Supplied.

✳ Featured image: Sandra Prinsloo, Dawid Minnar in Die Moeder, Photo: Jeremeo Le Cordeur