This is a play about surrogacy. That’s what you need to know, that’s what the reviews and the marketing will tell you. Vivienne Franzmann specializes in issues and this issue-play is about surrogacy and the politics of surrogacy and the ethics of overseas surrogacy and babies and babies and babies and done. But it’s called Bodies. And it’s about a whole lot more than babies.
It tells the story of Clem and Josh, a middle-class white couple who have opted to pay for the eggs of a Russian woman to be carried by a surrogate from India, Lakshmi, in order to deliver them the baby they so desperately want. Clem’s father, David, requires round-the-clock care for his motor neurone disease, and he does not approve of Clem’s decision. So, as Clem’s anxiety about the ethics of this build and legal difficulties compound the issue, we see Clem imagine all the terrors of motherhood and all the associated costs of this economic arrangement.
Sounds pretty babies-heavy to me.
But the proper genius of this play is the way in which it expands from this point, deconstructing what it means to be an “issues”- play. I was struck by the fact that as I was watching it, under my feet was playing out Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. They are two very different plays, but both offer a microscopic lens onto the subject of emotional labours of women, often exerted physically on their bodies.
Oni, David’s carer, has left her children with their father to move to this country to be a carer. Lakshmi, or Clem’s imagined image of Lakshmi, we are never exactly clear, has left her children to have Clem’s baby. Clem cannot stop imagining the teenage child she is going to have, who plays out as the most cherubic, stereotypical image of a teenager you can imagine.
There are offstage children exerting pressure in all directions and one child-father relationship in complete turmoil. I have rarely seen a moment of more crystalline dramatic intensity than that in which Clem, played with complete assurance by Justine Mitchell, wills her father with every fibre of her being to give his blessing only to be met by contempt. We feel with her in that moment: the social commentary is lost as we see a child begging for the impossible from a man to stubborn or moral to relent (can’t get a grip on Billington’s last line for a moment not one).
It’s the bodies, though. The bits of the body that we like to ignore, the bodies breaking down and swelling up. The bodies that we in this country can afford to pay someone poorer and browner to take care of. The bodies we don’t want and we don’t want to see and so we push them to the other side of the world or leave them to other mothers – and the mothers bit is important. Men do not care in this world. Men are not left with the roles of caring for others. We have constructed a society and now an economy around women taking care of the young, old, and vulnerable.
Though the argument of the play seems, overwhelmingly by the end, that overseas surrogacy is a barbaric trade, what’s thrilling about the play is that it gives a fair hand to those whose sole wish is to have a child. It does not censure this desire nor mock it, rather pointing out how it is an immanent product of our culture and one that requires examination. It does not suggest Clem is some monster because she pays someone to care for her father – it is credit to a fantastically deft and straightforward performance by Lorna Brown – but rather that some choices are difficult and relationships are difficult and this is the situation.Gabriella Slade’s design annoyed me a bit. I frankly could have done without the projection onto a sort of rounded belly of a surface (*ding*), particularly the filmic representation at the end which seemed just a little too pointed for an otherwise so subtle production and the sliding IKEA-style set seemed a little too cool for a play that burns bright (I had the same thought of Anatomy downstairs, weirdly) but overall the performances are magnetic, the themes arresting, and I came out just a little bit speechless.
Expect more than babies.