My Mother and Other Catastrophes – Rivka Hartman and the pleasure and pain of family. (Theatre Review)


My Mother and Other Catastrophes 

A play reading by Rivka Hartman

Watch for tickets here.

The way generations pass down their pain is obviously of great interest to anyone with parents, but particularly to great Sydney playwright Rivka Hartman, who examines this through the eyes of Jewish women in My Mother and Other Catastrophes. In a post Freud world we consider it a weakness to “use” heritage or history to account for our position, or even to examine how we arrived at certain conclusions (think of Tony Abbott’s lifestyle comment regarding Australian Aboriginal communities to get a taste fo how pervasive this attitude is today) choosing rather to buy into the idea that we can do anything and rise above any difficulty if only we stop complaining about it. It is partially true, for there is a dragging, anemic quality to the baggage of personal history and it does often play havoc with our minds, acting as a preventative to the action our spirits long to take. However, most of the time these histories are only problems because they prevent us fitting in with a narrowed cultural perspective that allows for a “success”, that was originally set up to keep you and your kind out. In a post post modern world, the question isn’t always do I act (or do I “be” as Hamlet would say) but rather which action, and which persona do I assimilate in order to be fully me?

It seems as time goes on and we dismantle more of our cultural heritage, the more options present themselves and the harder it is to choose. We are reactionary beings, lashing out in response to unmet needs, unfulfilled goals or those mental states we had to sacrifice to choose the life we did. In our society this usually involves money. Capital insists on a system of supply and demand, and art insists on reflecting our darker selves just when we don’t want to know, and these two devices are at constant odds. Usually, anyone with money has had to give up their creative sympathies, and vice versa, but this is a society that handsomely rewards the refusal of art, history and introspection, so given our defensive state, most of us will take out petty retaliations against those who don’t follow the beaten path. Sometimes the pain of the loss for the sake of assimilation is so great, those who are forced to abandon their history in order to fit in, will turn to different forms of self harm as they begrudgingly accept.


Rivka Hartman examines this universe of issues in her lovely play My Mother and Other Catastrophes. I was fortunate enough to attend a reading of this play produced by the Pop Up theatre Company at Glebe books, but it is my understanding that there are other readings, so be sure to grab tickets.

Gitl (Elaine Hudson) is a woman with a tragic past. Like many of those who suffered, she took refuge in her heritage, letting it think fo her, relegating her pain to her subconscious and busying herself with the important work of caring for family and making sure there are grandchildren. Her pain manifests as a bitterness, however, that shows little understanding for the pain of others. Her daughter Miriam (Anne Tenny) as is often the case, want’s to be completely different to her mother. She identifies as a “flower child” and wants a world dedicated to art and peace, but she has little time for the passions of her heritage, and sees her mother as burdened by tradition and not self-expressed. She marries Max (John Grinstone) a gentle, free hippy who loves her and is loyal to her, but who isn’t a great provider and can be seen as weak. they have a daughter, Sandalwood (Florette Cohen) who is very rebellious, treating her parents and her heritage with the greatest contempt imaginable. Sandy is a stand up comedienne who is angry at her fathers hopelessness. What the three women can’t see, but what we are privy to, is the way they act like each other, in different environments, under different pressures. each judges the other out of their response to their own pain and each is mystified by the behaviours of the other, but Harman cleverly winds them in and among each other so that the trajectory of suffering is easily seen as it scars its way from Gitl’s horrific sufferings in the Holocaust, through to the pain manifest in sandy’s life.

My Mother and Other Catastrophes is a strong indictment of the refusal of heritage by a potent Jewish voice, but at the same time, Hartman loves all her characters, understands them and sympathises with them. She presents their hopelessness in equal measure with their strength but carries them through their exposure to the audience with respect and dignity. This is a beautiful play, very much about the passion and power of very ordinary lives, a celebration of the very difficult task of living. It is simple in its delivery, telling a story almost like a fable, and yet its message is contemporary, clear and politically timely. This particular reading is peppered with animated joys such as film footage, dance, music and some props. The actors are all accomplished, experienced performers who know how to make a reading shine, and who take full advantage of Hartman’s very funny script.

This is a lovely performance that is not to be missed if you get the chance.