Bodies @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Between the Womb and the Grave

I’d rather see a new play than anything else in the world, to be perfectly honest. Which is why I try and see everything at the Royal Court; almost without exception, there’s something interesting about the piece, theatrically, formally, linguistically, historically or politically. Bodies is definitely a ‘politically interesting’ piece.

And because I like to see plays knowing as little as possible, I love going to previews. I barely want to know the premise, generally I decide based on a cast and creative list. You get to feel like you’re involved, however peripherally in the development process, as the actors test various things out on you and the technical team try and calibrate all the inner workings that go into any play.

The obvious disadvantage is that very few people have seen it yet. Which means I haven’t been able to talk to anyone about it yet.

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Vivienne Franzmann’s play is ‘about’ surrogacy. Clem, played by Justine Mitchell (aka the best thing about Plough and the Stars at the Nash last year) cannot have a baby, and so she and her husband are using eggs from a donor in Russia, implanted in a surrogate in India to have a child. The action takes place over nine months, and involves Clem’s Dad, who lives with motor neurone disease, his carer Oni (beautifully played by Lorna Brown,) and ‘Daughter,’ played by Hannah Rae. Bodies real and imagined, healthy and sick, privileged and not are vivisected in Jude Christian’s stark production.

This is interesting, but far more so is what lies underneath this; a suggestion that privilege is not necessarily about what benefits you, as much as privilege dictates the jurisdiction you can have over someone else’s body. In Clem’s case, all the privilege and money in the world could not stop her body betraying her, but it does mean she can wield influence over others. She cannot have a child, but she will have one, because she wants one. Maybe this was obvious to everyone except me, but I’d always thought of privilege as something that impacts the self, not others. So that’s interesting.

It’s not only Clem’s body that has let her down, her father David is largely confined to his chair, speech slurring, unable to tend the birds Clem remembers so clearly from her youth. He has a carer, Oni, who he trusts and treats as a friend, whereas Clem would rather things were kept professional. David, an old-school socialist feels a sense of larger responsibility, Clem apparently does not. Oni often mediates, but it is clear she agrees with David. They all have different ideas as to what taking care of someone consists of; David believes in rights, Oni in physically caring, and Clem in providing financially. She considers her obligations to the surrogate limited to the money – twenty-two thousand pounds – and thinks nothing as to her wellbeing.

The surrogate, Lakshmi (Salma Hoque,) apparently plans to use the money to send her children to school. Their father will look after them while she is in the clinic. This is what Clem knows, and doesn’t interrogate it. Does she think if she does challenge the simplicity of the arrangement it will all fall apart? Does she not want to chance gaining a conscience? Ignorance is certainly bliss, because of course these are not the circumstances at all. Lakshmi needs the money – period. There is no father looking after her other children, they look after themselves, connected by a piece of string. Lakshmi has no rights. There is a scene where Clem and her husband, Josh (Brian Ferguson,) skype Lakshmi. They are very friendly, ask lots of questions that border on invasive, but Lakshmi seems happy enough to answer the questions – translated by a doctor. It’s only when you read the script you realise that the translations are different; the doctor is harsher, authoritative, ordering Lakshmi around, telling her what to do.

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Which brings me onto my problem with the play. In telling this story and focusing on white, middle-class successful TV producer Clem, Lakshmi is pushed to the margins of a narrative that is about her. Lakshmi only speaks to voice her pain – and even then it starts as the end of the sentences spoken by Daughter. Fragments of pain, not even complete thoughts. She is denied articulacy. The play seems to take advantage of her. There is a scene where she paints the room for the baby, in the background, while the white people talk. I want to believe this is about the ignorance of Clem to Lakshmi’s voice, and I want to believe this was deliberate, but it just seemed counter-intuitive. WHY make a story about how the bodies of Indian women are used to satisfy westerners if you’re going to do the same thing!? I so hope people with more to say on this do, because this is why I want to talk about it. The play made me feel icky politically, and not in a good way.

Perhaps Franzmann felt this was the only way she could write this story, fine; Bodies has done its job, with me at least. Commercial surrogacy wasn’t something I knew happened. Happens. I’d never even thought about it, and I consider myself a moderately empathetic person with some sense of the horrors going on in the world… and yet it was only seeing this play and then googling frantically afterwards just how out of control it is. It’s abuse on an industrial scale, taking advantage of those most desperate to please the wealthy.

It’s at this abstract level that the play works best. Gabriella Slade’s set reminded me of that Sarah Kane stage direction, a hotel room so expensive “it could be anywhere in the world.” A single long, thin room running the length of the upstairs space. A number of doors, and sliding glass panels. It looks like a waiting room in a private clinic, a clinic that could be, and is, anywhere.

I also want to add that I thought Justine Mitchell was excellent. More leading roles for her, please.

 

Photo by Bronwen Sharp & Scott Rylander.

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