Saturday, 15 July 2017

Review Bodies

Peter Barker is intrigued by a play tracing a global transaction which a London couple hopes will bring them the child of their dreams.

by Vivienne Franzmann

Great Expectations

Clem and Josh are desperately trying for a baby. However the well-off middle-class, middle-aged media couple are paying for the creation of a baby who would not otherwise exist.

The egg donor comes from Russia, while across the world an impoverished woman in India is the surrogate mother carrying the egg fertilized by Josh's sperm.

Bodies is a new play from Vivienne Franzmann examining the purchase of parenthood and the bringing to life of another human being with a genetic connection as a paid-for hybrid commodity.

Unable to conceive their own child, Clem and Josh allow their longing for a family dictate their actions without regard for the welfare of and consequences for others around them. 

These others include surrogate mother Lakshmi in India, Salma Hoque skilfully managing wide-ranging shifts of emotions, and Philip Goldacre's touching portrayal of Clem's cantankerous, stroke-stricken, trade unionist father who nevertheless sticks to his socialist values.

Many would regard the situation of the London couple (Justine Mitchell and Jonathan McGuinness) as a first world problem, motivated by dubiously selfish concerns. Unlike the Sex Pistols' song of the same title, the problem and solution is not forced on Clem.

Scientific advance is now a gateway to unprecedented arrangements and Franzmann's play examines where respect for our own and other people's bodies begins and ends.

It also poses the question about what personal fulfilment in our advanced technological age should mean.

The play provides a skilful framework for these questions and issues with a poignant fantasy as a dramatic device. Clem meets and speaks with the unborn child, a young woman of 16 years in a sure-footed, striking performance by Hannah Rae.

This daughter can cross psychic and physical boundaries, moving from Clem's English house to the dormitory of the surrogate Indian mother. The child becomes like an inverse ghost of Hamlet's father, also a victim of other people's actions, but looking to the family's future instead of the past.

Within such an emotionally overwrought situation,  there is nevertheless state intervention,  counterbalancing the illusion that our deepest desires, consumerism and the market are the only factors in a seemingly endless case of supply and demand.

Director Jude Christian, designer Gabriella Slade with Joshua Pharo on lighting  convincingly stage digital connectivity enabling clear changes of scene and context in a fast-moving plot.

Slade's beige softwood set with sliding doors makes for an effective contemporary backdrop with a round window smoothly transforming into a screen with videos created by Meghna Gupta.

However the play at 90 minutes, despite cuts to the published text,  does seem overlong. There is also some clunky dialogue and the final pay off felt confusing, but Franzmann does have the ability to spring surprises and drive the story forward.

The affluence of Clem and Joshua's life, the exploitation of the less advantaged at home and abroad, fertility, loss, and motherhood are all deftly handled. It's an amber/green light for a compelling tale which impressively mines the social and emotional implications of surrogacy.  

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