Yerma at the Young Vic, over at the Royal Court we have another childless woman taking a much more pragmatically 21st century approach to the problem. She’s not yet got the profile of someone like James Graham, Lucy Kirkwood or Polly Stenham but ever since her debut with Mogadishu* Vivienne Franzmann has been delivering such consistently good work she’s as much of a must-see playwright for me as any of them. In Bodies the woman desperate for a child is Clem (Justine Mitchell,) who after five miscarriages has opted for surrogacy. Her husband Josh (Jonathan McGuinness, reading in the role after Brian Ferguson got ill,) will provide the sperm, the eggs come from an unknown woman in Russia, while actually carrying the baby will be Lakshmi (Salma Hoque) in India, where surrogates have very few rights.
While she prepares for the next generation of her family, Clem has trouble knowing how to deal with the previous one, as her father David (Philip Goldacre) is dying of Motor Neurone Disease, and gradually losing the ability to communicate.
And what he’s trying to communicate is pretty devastating, as the old-school socialist has no patience for his daughter’s desire for a child, and feels she’s taking advantage of Lakshmi’s poverty and helplessness. Clem has been having imaginary conversations with a teenage version of her unborn daughter (Hannah Rae,) and these now get increasingly dark and guilt-ridden as terrible things happen to Lakshmi, and we’re left guessing how much of this might actually be going on and how much is Clem imagining the worst – especially once India passes a law banning surrogacy overnight and everyone’s status is put into question.
The pressure on her mental state is another way Bodies feels like a companion piece to the Simon Stone version of Yerma, with an outlook on how the problems of conceiving may have modern solutions but can still be stressful to the point of madness. It’s another powerful and often dark piece from Franzmann, but with a subtlety in the way it looks at other kinds of surrogates – just as Clem gives the job of physically carrying her child to someone else, so too David’s emotional care as well as his physical needs often fall to his carer Oni, Lorna Brown providing a combination of heart and common sense to the play as well as a lighter touch to keep it from becoming depressing.
Where Jude Christian’s production stumbles a bit is in being too heavy-handed with the play’s liberal guilt-trip, more even than anything during the Dominic Cooke years: Although I can’t fault Hoque’s performance, as a tearful Lakshmi steps off the stage to look every single audience member in the eye, it is thunderingly unsubtle. Bodies may try a bit too hard in its message about complicity in the suffering of people in the third world, but in the personal side of the story it scores a hit, and there really are a number of excellent performances led by Mitchell.
Bodies by Vivienne Franzmann is booking until the 12th of August at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.
Photo credit: Bronwen Sharp.