The last time Arthur Pita presented a twisted take on the fairytale – his Stepmother/Stepfather double bill with HeadSpaceDance – he kept a sense of outrageous humour bubbling throughout. The Mother offers no such comforts. It takes already dark source material (the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Story of a Mother) and plunges even deeper into the nightmare scenario that story proposes, giving everything a convincing Russian twist along the way.
The ballerina Natalia Osipova’s ongoing relationship with Pita has produced many unsettlingly good performances; here, she threw herself utterly into the role of the Mother – a woman attempting to retrieve her baby from Death’s clutches. She began in a state of dishevelled, exhausted confusion, trying to comfort her sick child in a dilapidated bedroom lit in rust-stain brown. Then, when Death disguised as a doctor (Jonathan Goddard) stole away with her child, she was jolted into a state of terror-driven energy as her chase began.
A revolving set took her through a repeating series of shabby rooms, so the chase stayed rooted in domesticity. But her encounters with a series of grotesque characters (all portrayed with exceptional serpentine menace by Goddard) were increasingly surreal and the sacrifices she was forced to make were increasingly upsetting, with the natural drama in all of Osipova’s movement heightening the horror-movie atmosphere.
A babushka with a blank reflective visor instead of a face forced her to do folk dancing till she was ready to drop; a rose gardener in a New Look dress and veil bound her in thorny briars to make her bleed; a ferryman stole her eyes; a white-haired witch stole her black hair. In truth, even though you pretty much know what to expect from a Pita show, the amount of violence being perpetrated against one woman often felt too much to bear.
Osipova stumbled on through this fever-dream, whose soundtrack was a percussion-swirl of minor chords, screeches, dissonance and Russian folk music (performed live by Frank Moon and Dave Price), interspersed with a baby’s crying. There were moments when Pita’s choreography seems, poignantly, to let her find liberation in the madness that was overwhelming her. Her classical elegance shone through, her luxurious six o’clock splits and graceful jetes punctuating the misery. But Death (Goddard, terrifying in a black sequinned mask and bodysuit) cannot be beaten – and Pita’s choice of quiet flashback ending was heartbreaking.