BWW Review: BODIES, Royal Court
How far would you go to have a baby? What and who would you overlook to make it happen? Vivienne Franzmann has never shied away from controversial subjects in her plays. The 2012, critically acclaimed play The Witness explored the exploitative nature of photojournalism and Pests was based on heroin addiction. In Bodies she turns her attention to the morality surrounding overseas surrogacy.
Clem and Josh want a baby, but Clem cannot carry a baby to term. As they are can afford it, they decide to pay for a baby using a Russian woman's egg, fertilised by Josh's sperm and implanted into Lakshmi, a poor Indian woman. The complexity of the moral issues surrounding the pregnancy are absorbed by Clem's need for a child, at whatever cost. As the story develops, parts of Lakshmi's story come to light, revealing an uncomfortable reality for everyone to face.
The play opens with a cringingly realistic conversation between Clem and her teenage daughter Megan. This is gradually revealed to be an expression of Clem's own imagination and conscience, as she visualises her future daughter. These fantasy sequences are a clever addition to the play, as they are a means of portraying the inner workings of Clem's conscience and revealing Lakshmi's tragic backstory.
Clem should be distinctly one dimensional and occasionally unlikeable, as her lifelong aching for a baby is so great that it consumes all her other relationships. She feels that her only validation in life as a woman is to have a baby, which is somewhat annoying, particularly for a female playwright to focus on. However, Justine Mitchell brings such immense pathos and raw emotion to the role that you want to reach out and give her a hug.
As a successful career woman, with a seemingly happy and stable marriage, her inability to carry her own baby overwhelms her and her doubt at the path she has chosen to achieve her dream haunts her at every turn. Mitchell is natural, passionate and completely believable.
In a universally brilliant cast, Hannah Rae is a standout as daughter Megan. There is fantastic chemistry between her and Mitchell and she slips effortlessly between cheeky teenager and the voice of an angry conscience.
Jonathan McGuinness valiantly steps in as husband Josh due to a cast illness. Despite having script in hand, he is very good at conveying the the love and frustration he feels for his wife and their situation.
Philip Goldacre and Lorna Brown make a wonderful duo as Clem's disapproving father David and his assertive carer Oni. They bring some much needed lightness to some scenes and a poignancy as David's health deteriorates as the pregnancy progresses.
Salma Hoque plays the surrogate, Lakshmi. She is vulnerable and poor, but the main issue is her character is underdeveloped. Despite one very powerful scene, we fail to get enough depth of her as a person.
Gabrielle Slade's set design is a little bland with its blonde veneer and Scandi feel. The use of sliding glass panels is very effective in shifting scenes, but the circular projection screen at the side of the stage features odd image sequences at strange times and is simply distracting.
This is a powerful and intense play where Franzmann gets under the skin of the issue of infertility. Only a few lines strike the wrong note, such as the overly extreme revelation by Josh to David that they haven't seen his brother for three years as Clem cannot bear to see the children.
Surrogacy has already been the subject of Satinder Kaur Chohan's Made in India at the Soho Theatre this year, but Franzmann's play is far more successful in making the audience confront the very uncomfortable truth of modern life: as long as we can pay for it, we can have anything we want, regardless of the cost to others.
Photo Credit: Bronwen Sharp