"Something I've learned from all this is that...women have really quite strong gut instincts." This is the opening line of The Mouths of Mothers, directed by Amanda Stuart Fischer. The play, which is the first on child sexual abuse of its kind, is on at The Pleasance Theatre in London until Saturday.
It is set up in collaboration with the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and Mosac, a charity supporting non-abusive parents and carers of sexually abused children. In 2007, Amanda interviewed seven mothers and ended up with 14 hours of recorded interviews. After transcribing them and transforming the material into a script, she created a raw copy of verbatim theatre. The result of the mothers intimate, deeply personal narratives is a harrowing, yet compelling piece in its honesty.
The format of 'I remember'- when verbatim subjects reflect back on what has happened - can sometimes make stories and dialogue feel distant. But in this case, according to Amanda, it helps to forge a clear ethical contract with your interviewees. "The fact that 'I promise to use only your words and what you say to me', helps inform the contract you make as a playwright to the people who are generously telling you their stories," she reveals. The verbatim theatre form tends to capture the character and 'essence' of the original woman. "So I think in that way, you get access to a more authentic insight into how this kind of issue actually emerges in people's lives," Amanda explains.
A haunting visual background portraying real life video recordings of young children in vulnerable home environments reminds us that beyond the safe walls of the counselling space, or the 'help group', real lives are being lived.
The play exposes common failures of the legal, social and healthcare systems that should have been there to support these women. There are examples of doctors who don't conduct proper medical examinations when there are suspicions of abuse, or mothers being questioned and even verbally attacked by social workers while seeking help for their children. As an observer, this is an appalling reality to take in. By watching the play, we all become "passive" witnesses in a sense.
"I think professionals working in social and legal contexts also feel shock, because when you drill down most social workers are not negligent people. They are caring people who are part of a system that simply doesn't know how to respond," notes Amanda. Hopefully the play could be a way to open up a largely neglected societal problem; by increasing awareness within schools and among parents.
The power of a piece like this is to set up a dialogue between people who have suffered injustice and trauma, and those who should be helping them.
Amanda believes this project will continue to shape her work. "What I've learned from these stories has changed me, and it will influence the theatre I make and the way I approach my research in the future," she concludes.