My rating: * * *
Clem is a white middle-class TV producer of moral sensibility (she produced one show about FGM and another about the adolescent mental health unit in Scotland). Her desperation for a child, however, leads her and her husband, Josh, down the slippery slope of paid surrogacy. Their baby will have four parents: a biological father (Josh), an adopted mother (Clem), a biological mother (an anonymous Russian egg donor) and an Indian surrogate named Lakshmi. The couple go through a seemingly trustworthy agency that allows Skype conversations with the surrogate. These sessions work to reassure the couple that Lakshmi’s conditions are satisfactory, and her own two small children are safely in the care of their father during her nine-month stay at the clinic. The backdrop of the drama features Clem’s ageing socialist father whose health is in great decline, rendering the need for a home caretaker.
Following a brief intro, the play opens to a very typical mother-daughter conversation. The pair bicker over the mother’s home-baked kale crisps and the prospect of the daughter’s ‘crow’ tattoo, setting up the expectation for a play about the perfect family. All is changed by the mother’s sudden, puzzling question: “Which school do you go to?” revealing a sense of estrangement that contradicts their earlier familiarity. The mother spontaneously bursts into tears and sharply questions her daughter “Are you a crow? Are you here?” to which the daughter eerily responds “I’m here […] I’ll make up for all the others”.
After this rather structurally inelegant opening which confuses and conflates the play’s themes, we gradually begin to see the full picture. Clem (Justine Mitchell) frequently visits her father (Philip Goldacre) who is against paid surrogacy. As his disapproval slowly devolves into outright hostility, Clem’s unease about her decision advances into a psychological breakdown. We come to realise that her strange conversations with her daughter have all been imagined; the teen is nothing but a physical manifestation of Clem’s worst fears and anxieties. The daughter acts as an omniscient moraliser, haunting Clem with the hard truths behind the surrogacy. She questions why Clem blindly trusted the agency when she possessed prior knowledge of the fact that surrogates in India have no legal protection. Her daughter refuses her mother any peace of mind, constantly reminding her that the cost of her ignorance is not just monetary.
The strongest scenes are between Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) and the daughter (Hannah Rae). The duo finish each other’s sentences, alternate phrases and words, and repeat gothic descriptions of a crow as a way to articulate Lakshmi’s trauma.
Scenes with the caretaker, Oni (played by Lorna Brown), offer pleasant moments of comedic relief. However, she is anything but a throwaway stock character. She shrewdly analyses the family’s complicated situation. She perceives that the couple chose a Russian ovum to produce a white child who ‘looks like them’. She is also the one to voice the fact that Indian surrogates lack legal protection. Clem’s cordial and occasionally frosty dialogue with the carer in conjunction with Josh’s eventual denouncement of Oni’s ‘immigrant’ status offer a comment on the undervalued work of (African) immigrants in Britain. The irony of course being that Oni’s relationship with the father is vastly more intimate than Clem’s, who remains awkward and helpless during her father’s emotional breakdown, and eventually reduces their relationship to the occasional Skype call.
Gabriella Slade’s set design is minimalist, and looks like the most basic page of an IKEA catalogue. However, this bare layout is effective, as it allows the characters to engulf and dress the space, until the empty setting is filled by the pressing weight of the intense emotion. The set features a projection screen, which has the potential to be an interesting component, but is ultimately used too infrequently, rendering its existence superfluous. An excellent feature is the transparent sliding doors that separate her father’s home from the centre stage, allowing the audience to visualise Clem’s compartmentalisation. Her distraught daughter, however, collapses these boundaries as she obtrusively opens and closes the sliding doors at her whim, until all of Clem’s anxieties about her father, her infertility and the surrogacy bleed into one.
Another interesting feature is the use of paint. Clem paints one wall with a sample yellow strip. The heavily pregnant surrogate then finishes painting the entire wall, while the daughter verbalises the conditions of Lakshmi’s abuse. Just as Clem’s choice led to the physical labour of Lakshmi, her decision also led to a type of overwhelming emotional labour.
This play is a little too true to the etymology of hysteria – ‘suffering in the womb’ – as it delves into the heartbreak of infertile Clem. Towards the end of the play, the husband conveys that Clem’s period used to spur on suicidal tendencies. This confession does not add much – the audience would have felt just as sympathetic towards Clem’s position without this addition. In actual fact, the mention disrupts the character development of Clem, as her previously linear progression into mental decay now becomes somewhat erratic.
Overall, despite the need of some structural polishing, Vivienne Franzmann provides a hard-hitting play about the ethics of paid surrogacy, fearlessly tackling issues of identity, exploitation and abuse.
‘Bodies’ is playing at Royal Court, London until 12 August.