“I could tell you I’m a good man… but you wouldn’t believe me.” Inspired by writer Saaramaria Kuittinen’s seven-year correspondence with prisoners on death row, On Mother’s Day from Ekata Theatre tells a heartbreaking tale that’s all too familiar. It’s the story of a crime – a violent, horrific murder that should never have happened. But it’s also the story of the man who committed it, his shame and guilt over what he’s done, and his desperate need to cling on to who he is in a world that’s specifically designed to dehumanise him.
Ramón (Christian Scicluna) is a murderer – but he’s also thoughtful, creative, funny and extremely likeable. He doesn’t try and make excuses, nor does he ask us to condone what he’s done. Instead, he shares with us his memories, which are all that he has left of his former life, and in doing so tells us all we need to know about the path that brought him here.
Those memories are recreated not only through Ramón’s words but by the mesmerising movement and physicality of ensemble members Lukas Bozik and Silvia Manazzone. The violent abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of his father; the party at which he met Maria, the love of his life; the precious childhood holidays at his grandma’s in the countryside – all are brought vividly to life and allow Ramón to step outside the confines of his tiny cell and experience in his mind a world he no longer gets to see, hear or touch.
Although, on the surface, the story told by On Mother’s Day is personal, not political, it’s difficult to watch it without feeling a growing sense of anger at a system that places retribution above rehabilitation, and utterly disregards the circumstances that may have led someone to commit a terrible crime. Ramón’s has been a life of violence, but at the hands of others, not his own. The crime for which he was condemned was, he tells us, the one time in his life that he acted without thinking – and yet it’s enough, in the eyes of the law, to wipe out any good he may have done or may go on to do in the future.
The set is simple – just Ramón’s cell, a metal bedframe and a small box of possessions, right in the centre of the stage. Director Erika Eva makes creative use of The Cockpit’s in-the-round stage area, however, extending it to include the high walkways that overlook the stage, and where the actors pace up and down like prison guards. The show also makes particularly effective use of light, which is used both as an interrogation tool and to create the play’s striking and desperately poignant final image.
I had a personal interest in seeing this show because I also have some experience of writing to prisoners on death row, and have been struck repeatedly by the wit, wisdom, compassion and astonishing creativity of men and women who’ve been written off by society. This is exactly what On Mother’s Day captures so well. However incongruous it may seem, Ramón is both a murderer and a good man; he deserves to be punished for his crime, but there’s so much more to him than the single worst thing he’s ever done. Although the current run is at an end, let’s hope it isn’t the last we see of this beautiful and heartbreaking story of life on death row, which succeeds not only as a piece of theatre but also as a powerful argument against the senseless violence of the death penalty.