Friday, 23 October 2009

Mother's milk. Mrs Klein, Almeida Theatre

When Melanie Klein (Clare Higgins) accuses her daughter, Melitta (Zoe Waites), of being a ‘bad clinician’, the audience gasped during last night’s opening of Nicolas Wright’s ‘Mrs Klein’ at the Almeida theatre. Perhaps their horror was imagining themselves chastised by the very woman whose theories on infant development form the bedrock of their own working practice? The Almeida is a stone's throw from the consulting rooms of Hampstead, after all. Indeed the audience, in this small, claustrophobic theatre space became a Greek chorus to the emotional dance of death played out on the stage. Loud coughing accompanied Klein’s violent attack on her daughter, as she threw wine in Melitta’s face and stuffed a torn letter in her mouth: a gross parody of maternal feeding. It seemed as if Melanie Klein was choking the rest of us too.

This is the power of Wright’s play in this stellar production directed by Thea Sharrock - an exploration of the complex dynamics between Klein, her daughter and Paula, a Jewish refugee German analyst seeking both work and to become Klein’s patient: a lost child in search of her mother. She also acts as audience, referee and protagonist in the primitive battles between mother and daughter whose persecutory routines become murderous against the backdrop of Hans’ recent death, Klein’s son.

Clare Higgins’ Klein, whose bad-breast antics would screw the resolve of any infant to shove shit in her face, is pitch perfect. Our ambivalence shifts uneasily between sympathy for this, a bereaved woman, and repulsion that Klein abused both her own children by forcing them into analysis with her (the name Melitta, ‘little Melanie’ flags up Klein’s narcissism like a storm warning). And yet, this very abuse of her role as mother allowed Klein to theorise early attachment giving us a model of human development that enriches psychodynamic and analytic practice today.

Our ability to manage these discords at once is the challenge Klein’s work sets out for us. Can we truly hold both good and bad in the same object? Can we accept Klein's theories while despising her methodology? Our strangulated gasps during the performance, followed by wild applause at the play’s end mysteriously symbolised Klein’s own theories of integration. And we left the theatre enriched.

Mrs Klein runs until December 5th at the Almeida theatre, N1

No comments: