[BLANK] by Alice Birch was co-commissioned by Clean Break and National Theatre Connections, a festival of plays written for and performed by young companies. Although Maria Aberg’s production at the Donmar is the full-length premiere, I have seen a production of [BLANK] before, by a local school at the Lyric Hammersmith last year. Where the Connections version of the script had 60 scenes, the republished script has 100, 45 with parts written to be played by children, 45 written to be played by adults, and 10 to be played between adults and children. Companies are invited to perform as many scenes as they like, in any order, carrying the formal experimentation of the play into the heart of each production. The author’s note on the script states, ‘This play is a challenge and an invitation to you and your company to make your own play from these scenes. This play might have a narrative and recurring characters, or it might not – it is entirely up to you’.
The constitution of Aberg’s brilliant, all-female company, with twelve adult actors and four child actors (who play two child parts between them), brings out the bleakness of Birch’s script. Whereas the young company production I saw focused on children, forced to grow up before their time and take care of the adults in their lives, Aberg’s production focuses on mothers and daughters. In tracing how that relationship continues to re-echo throughout their lives into adulthood, it cannot help but recall Birch’s earlier play Anatomy of a Suicide, which showed snatches of the lives of three generations of women from one family simultaneously.
Maria Aberg responds to the challenge of [BLANK] in several different ways. In the first part of the production, three distinct narratives emerge around three characters: Zainab, who has become estranged from her mother by, amongst other things, addiction; Joanna, a new mother struggling to look after her baby; and Kate, a woman with at least one child who enters into a relationship that becomes abusive. To try to summarise these women’s stories would be to give them a narrative and, indeed, logical coherence that the form of the play resists. Instead, bright, crystalline scenes in their lives stand out like shards of glass, sustained by powerful performances. The hurt and despair underlying the spiky relationship between Zainab (Zainab Hasan) and her mother (Thusitha Jayasundera), who catches her breaking into her house to rob her. The desperation of Joanna (Joanna Horton) asking her mother (Jackie Clune) for help and her arms-folded refusal. Kate (Kate O’Flynn)’s temperamental affection towards her young daughter (Zaris-Angel Hator), withdrawn as soon as she says that she doesn’t like her new boyfriend.
Rosie Elnile’s modular, two-level set, with white walls and fluorescent strip lights creates the impression of many rooms where the walls entrap rather than protect their residents. In combination with Jess Bernberg’s bold, primary colour lighting design, and Heta Multanen’s video design, which projects close-ups of the cast’s faces onto the walls, the sparse set facilitates the creation of striking visual images. A mother holding a baby paces in an upstairs room, desperately trying to get the baby to stop crying. It is not surprising when the set is transformed, through movement and lighting, into a prison. An older woman waits in her cell for a visit from her daughter that never comes. The production widens in scope to take in more women’s stories, putting another spin on care and responsibility. Now it is not mothers, but an institution falling short in its duty of care, but its fallibility is less forgivable and has more disastrous consequences. Zainab is forced to the floor and restrained by three prison officers. ‘I can’t breathe’, she cries, her voice muffled by the bodies pressing her down. ‘I want my mum’.
With another twist of the kaleidoscope, the production shifts focus again to a dinner party. Nine women sit, drinking wine, around a table, its pristine white cloth loaded with a mezze. Kate is introducing her friends to her new girlfriend, Shona (Shona Babayemi). The painfully middle-class friends flaunt an affected care for women like the ones that have been portrayed in the rest of the play, at the same time as passing judgement in a performance of tolerance. They clearly believe their lives to be completely insulated from the issues they discuss, failing to recognise their own implication in them, as revealed by lower status characters who intrude on their world. Shona, mocked for not knowing what labneh is, is the only voice of dissent. As in Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Birch makes her most biting social critique through horrifying humour.
This scene – by far the longest and most naturalistic scene in the play, with overlapping dialogue that acknowledges the influence of Caryl Churchill in a nod to the opening of Top Girls – is a stark departure in style from the rest of [BLANK]. It is also a metatheatrical challenge to the audience to consider the ethics of how we consume a play like [BLANK]. In some ways, the production up to this point has the effect of emphasising how widespread the experience of violence and neglect is, smouldering through lives like a slow-burning forest fire. Yet the dinner party scene, which seems like it might have been written specifically for the Clean Break production and the Donmar’s predominantly middle-class audience, stresses that there are structural causes, particularly class, that render direct experience of those things more or less likely.
Although the writing of this scene is closely observed and funny, it almost seems overwritten against the sparseness of the previous scenes, which could skewer or move in a single image or a few lines. It seems to draw back from its challenge to the director and audience to try to make meaning from the heap of brittle shards of the rest of the play by including such a direct critique. Yet it offers a different kind of challenge to the audience: to consider their own position and implication within society conceived as ecosystem; to consider their own responsibility towards others within that system.
My life is closer to those of the women at the dinner party than those of the women who have experienced foster care or the criminal justice system. Is my claim to care about these characters, and the lives of the women the play gestures towards, only performative? Do I really care?
A girl smashes up the dinner party with a baseball bat. Shards of glass fly.
[BLANK] is on at the Donmar Warehouse till 30th November. More info here.