In the opening moments of Vivienne Franzmann’s new play, Bodies, we meet Clem and her teenage daughter. Both thoroughly middle class (despite the slight flattening of Clem’s accent, something we later learn stems from her working class roots), they engage in a simple back-and-forth about kale crisps and Clem’s father’s aviary.
Sitting in the packed benches of the Royal Court Upstairs, I remember feeling surprised that the older woman was already a mother, in a play that I knew was about surrogacy. A few minutes in, and the teenage daughter was irritating me in a way so many teenagers on stage often do. There’s a tendency amongst contemporary playwrights to write teenagers as blandly precocious and slightly too comfortable in their poshness, and Clem’s daughter, with her occasional swearing and in-depth knowledge about obscure wild herbs, ticked all the boxes. That Franzmann—whose past as a secondary school teenager means she’s always written teenagers so much better than her peers—would do this too was a real surprise.
I should have known better. The daughter is not real, merely a figment of Clem’s desperate imagination. Tall and blonde, and wearing pearls, cotton and lace, the daughter spends the rest of the play haunting Clem, throwing out heavy-handed metaphors that allude to the havoc she may bring. She speaks the way she does, almost as a checkbox of what people think teenagers are like, because she is exactly that. Clem doesn’t have a teenager, and as it turns out, is desperate to have a child. She and her husband Josh have, after nine years of miscarriages, decided to go down the surrogacy route. The child will be biologically Josh’s but not Clem’s—instead, an egg is found in Russia, while a young mother, Lakshmi, will carry the child to term in India.
A slightly futuristic IKEA-style set means that we often see all the components of Clem’s life—from her very sick elderly father, to an empty crib at home, to Lakshmi showing off her growing bump—all at once. Justine Mitchell plays Clem with a slightly unhinged desperation, and Salma Hoque’s Lakshmi says so much with very few words. Clem is also responsible for caring for her father, David. Philip Goldacre puts in a painfully real performance that anyone with a terminally ill relative can recognise, and Lorna Brown as David’s carer Oni has perfect comic timing without becoming the butt of the joke, a privilege so rarely afforded to characters with African accents.
Special credit needs to go to Jonathan McGuiness, who plays Josh script-in-hand on press night following Brian Ferguson’s illness. Sweet and loving for the most part, the shift in tone when he slips into casual, subtle racism and classism towards “that fucking country” when the surrogacy begins to go wrong, or the way he snaps at his father-in-law David about living in “some shitty council house… with some immigrant wiping your arse” is so, so well played.
Perhaps my only real fault with Bodies is the lack of real interrogation about Clem and Josh’s surrogacy mission. David spits out cruelly how ashamed he is that his daughter would use money to ‘buy’ a baby, but we’re reminded a number of times before this that he’s a socialist and ‘a union man’. The implication being that his views are somehow radical, when to my mind they aren’t. The politics of rich, white couples finding poor Indian women to carry their white babies to term are murky and complex. Even when everything goes ‘right’, what happens next? How ethical is this process, especially if the couples in question can simply change their minds?
Despite this, Franzmann proves again that she is one of the few white playwrights I can name who acknowledges the way the politics of race inform our interactions. British theatre so often basks in being colourblind, but Franzmann does not. Clem cannot have her own baby so a poor brown woman must do it for her, she cannot care for her sick father so a black woman does that too.
One of the best exchanges in the whole play is when Oni learns that the egg donor is Russian. “So the baby’s skin will be—” she begins, before a flustered Clem insists that no, that’s not the reason, before Oni again placates her by stating that Clem and Josh simply want the baby to ‘look like them’.
In many ways the moment mirrors the end of the piece, when a well-placed lie by Oni lets Clem move past her guilt and get her baby after all. Middle class, white Clem needs the help of these black and brown women to live her life. While her unease about this might seem genuine, it disappears as soon as Oni convinces her that her father is no longer ashamed of her choices. Despite all her fears, her guilt never makes it beyond the surface. I wonder, perhaps, if the audience will be the same.
Bodies is on at the Royal Court until 12 August 2017. Click here for more details.