Pedro Almodóvar's 1999, Oscar winning film 'Todo Sobre Mi Madre' has been transmogrified into a stage version with a script by Samuel Adamson, and is currently receiving its world premiere at The Old Vic.
Almodóvar's work has a distinctive style which provides a unique perspective on life and human interaction. He combines interesting, resilient and non-conformist characters with complex plots to produce films with emotional intensity and warmth.
Esteban lives with his mother Manuela, and longs to know about his mysterious father. But his quest for identity is cut short through a tragic and untimely event. Subsequently, Manuela decides to seek out Esteban's father in Barcelona. While she's there, she meets up with Sister Rosa, a nun who minsters to prostitutes and transvestites, Agrado, a transvestite who's suffered at the hands of men, and a famous actress who's embroiled in a flawed, nerve-wracking relationship.
It's not by chance that Esteban's desire to know more about his identity starts the play, because identity forms one of the central themes. For example, two of the male characters have inclinations to be female - or at least have the desire to wear female clothing. But the overriding concern of the play is the nature of women.
Hildegard Bechtler's set design is sometimes functional, sometimes impressive. A rain storm - albeit focused on a small area of the stage - brings nature right into the heart of the performance, and an enormous rotating poster provides scene changes as well as a backdrop to the accident which changes Manuela's life. There's a 60s feel to the design and costumes, not only in the lurid, patterned wallpaper of the interiors, but also in the costumes. And this sits rather uneasily alongside some of the themes which more appropriately relate to the 1980s and 90s.
It's always a welcome treat to see Diana Rigg on stage, and she doesn't disappoint in the complex role of the dominant yet acutely vulnerable actress Huma Rojo. Though there's no doubt who's the boss in the dressing room, Rigg also gives us a personality who encapsulates the same feminine fortutude and empathy we see in Lesley Manville's central character, Manuela. Manville might have a petite frame, but she exudes courage and resilience in the face of emotional shock and adversity.
Colin Morgan, who recently gave a very promising performance in the lead role of 'Vernon God Little' at the Young Vic, takes on the role of seventeen year-old Estaban. In some ways, it's Esteban who provides almost a commentary through the play appearing in scenes throughout. 'My mother wouldn't understand that', said the lady sitting next to me.
Eleanor Bron also puts in a welcome appearance as the mother of Sister Rosa. Bron's character is a well-to-do artist who copies (forges?) the works of old masters, and is not afraid to speak her mind as she more than aptly demonstrates when she calls Manuela a slut on their first meeting. Still, as the other female characters show in the piece, her maternal instincts are not totally subordinate to her class consciousness.
Translations from one language to another are rarely totally satisfactory as we often realise when reading instructional manuals, for example. So, it's not entirely surprising that Samuel Adamson's script isn't an exact translation but a reworking of Almodóvar's film. In that sense, it might be unfair to compare the film with this new play. On the other hand, it's almost totally unavoidable given the acclaim that the film has received, the distinctiveness of the original and the unique vision of its creator. In general though, director Tom Cairns and writer Samuel Adamson have managed to produce a concept which, though it has a personality of its own, seems to remain faithful to the original.
I don't think there's anything implicitly wrong with transferring a story from one medium to another. But when a story also changes language it doesn't always carry with it the cultural niceties which produced its distinctiveness in the first place. There's something - essentially Spanish and which is very hard to define - which seems to be missing here, especially since it's supposed to be set in Spain. And the play doesn't seem to have quite let go of its filmic roots, because the music is an adaptation of the score from the film, which gives a sense that it's a kind of hybrid, existing in something approaching an artistic no-man's land.
Though the fine performances and complex story keep one enthralled, 'All About My Mother' nevertheless leaves one wondering why there was a need to adapt the original, especially as film provides – through close-ups and cuts in particular - the intimacy and intensity that stage drama can't easily replicate, especially with a stage the size of The Old Vic.
What the critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Superb recreation of Pedro Almodóvar's film All About My Mother, an adaptation that improves upon the famous original." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Drably designed, and strangely unaffecting production." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The result is a sincere attempt to re-invent a great movie. But who would want a copy, however well done, when they can have the original?" CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Ingenious, moving and amusing." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "It’s hard to imagine a richer film or, let’s concede, play."