8 year old girl gets boob job from Brazilian plastic surgeon. A tabloid editor’s dream, but not so far from reality. Just last week Primark was in the news for selling padded bras for ages 7-13. A mother taking her eight-year old daughter for a breast enhancement, Monica Dolan’s searing new play suggests, is a not un-anticipatable extension of rampant child sexualisation.
In contrast with the tabloid reportage it invokes, The B*easts deliberately does not sensationalise or titillate. In so doing, it models an ethical way for theatre to engage with such topics. The story is told in the third person by Tessa (Monica Dolan), a psychotherapist who worked with the mother, who she calls Karen, of the child, who she calls Lila. Tessa is swamped in a beige jumper and grey trousers, emphatically not sexualised (although her relationship with her own breasts becomes significant over the course of the play). At first, Tessa invites the audience to play the psychologist and, if we will, to pass judgement on whose fault it all was. As a psychotherapist, she’s not really allowed to express her opinions. It is fascinating to watch her reveal more of herself through the chinks of the story. Finally, shaking with rage, she tells us what she really thinks.
Dolan’s monologue is expertly paced. Tessa shares with us facts of the case: Lila’s expression of sexualised behaviours from the age of 3; how she was obsessed with breasts in women’s magazines and articulated her desire to have them even before she went to school; she begged her mother for a breast enhancement. The drip feed of information also structures how we as audience members apportion sympathy and blame; B*easts is about how the story is told and reactions to it as much as the story itself. At the heart of the play is a moral and ethical dilemma. Who owns Lila’s body? Who is responsible for her breasts?
It is too easy, Tessa suggests, (not to mention sexist and classist) to vilify the mother for giving her daughter what she wanted. Nor can Lila be blamed for wanting what society tells her she should want. Instead, Tessa indicts institutions for their complicity in child sexualisation and abuse: the media, the care system, even psychologists. In so doing, Dolan’s play yields some startling and sharply observed insights, for example, the way the press fetishises children as innocent and condemns as aberrant children who undermine that by having been sexualised. B*easts is necessary and uncomfortable viewing.
The B*easts is on at Underbelly until 27th August 2017, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Book tickets here.