MUSTARD is a one-woman show which tells the story of E, a young woman who has escaped from the rural Ireland of her Evangelical mother and her “Christian ladies stitch and bitch” knitting group. In London, in an ecstasy fuelled delirium, she meets ‘Smoking Area Man’, a professional cyclist, whom she falls madly and dangerously in love with. When his toxic traits are revealed, and he no longer looks at her with the same affection, she falls into a mustardy mania. This condiment takes centre stage in her descent into self harm.
Admittedly, I began watching this production with feelings of trepidation. I was weary of a depressing inevitability in E’s trajectory – a woman sent into hysteria and eventual powerlessness by a man’s mistreatment. But to my satisfaction the piece turned out to carry much more nuance than that. O’Connor plays E with gutsiness and playfulness, which means that despite the character’s vulnerability you could never call her weak. On the contrary, she is bold in her madness. She feels and expresses things in the extreme; just as her love for the English cyclist is intense and all-encompassing, she craves mustard with a loud, insatiable hunger. Throughout the play she turns to the audience and with this affixed, entrancing stare, repeats “my mind goes to mustard”. Refusing to garner easy audience sympathy with the trope of the passive, mentally ill female, in response to her boyfriend’s rejection, E carries out a visually shocking ‘dirty protest’, the specifics of which I will not spoil. Let’s just say – it involves mustard. Lots of it.
Further accentuating the intrigue of E’s character and narrative is O’Connor’s script. It is lip-smackingly brilliant. The words flow off her tongue rhythmically. They are poetic but without feeling laboured or too abstract. Humour plays a significant role in the show. There are moments which are genuinely hilarious, such as her shocking frankness when talking about sex and her “tired vagina”, or the shame she feels in booking a one way Ryanair ticket to see her ex – “the internet is tutting me”.
The script, intelligent as it is, truly comes alive through O’Connor’s pacey and dynamic delivery. Her embodiment of other characters, or E’s version of these characters, is immense. This is done particularly well when she amusingly shifts from E, obsessive and defiant, to embody E’s mother, a small town Irish woman attempting to tame her wild daughter in the only way she knows how, Biblical verse and the tedious activity of knitting. Or as E mimics in her mother’s Irish brogue, “knit one, pearl one, knit one, pearl one”.
Throughout the show, the stage becomes progressively more contaminated by mustard, the extent of E’s mania made visually explicit. Notably, the full meaning of the mustard obsession is left ambiguous. Perhaps the pointedly “English mustard”, the source of E’s destruction, is a reference to the ongoing Irish experience of English colonialism. The man who triggers her downfall is, after all, old money English. Is the trajectory of her relationship with him symbolic of historical, international power struggles? Or is it that, much like hot, sharp English mustard, he is an inescapable source of both pleasure and pain? While my instinct is to be frustrated at the unanswerable, part of the brilliance and originality of this play is that it is unafraid to leave the audience asking questions. This one-woman show is a theatrical tour de force. It is a captivating and shocking exploration of mental vulnerability following heartbreak, whilst still managing to be funny and absurd.
Recommended Drink: Nothing with mustard. Not that thats a conventional cocktail ingredient anyway. But I think this show might have put me off it for life.
Catch MUSTARD at Adelaide Fringe until the 19th March. Tickets are available through the Adelaide Fringe Box Office.