By Satinder Chohan
29 – 30 July 2016
Three gold banners are the only background that stand in contrast to the theatre's black curtain. The set is made only of black boxes, a few scattered props, and the cast itself. The lead character, Areia, stands centre stage, arguing with the father whom she discovers is not biologically related to her: 'Do you know how hard it is to look in the mirror each day, see a stranger in your face?'
'Half of Me' is the story of children born through Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). The lead character, Areia, is the teenage daughter of a straight couple who resorted to sperm donation after experiencing fertility problems, and who hid the truth for fear that father and daughter would lack a strong bond. When Areia suddenly learns the truth of her conception, she experiences an identity crisis that strains her family relationships.
Is her father still her father? Was she made from science and not love? These are some of the questions Areia grapples with as she begins a journey from the UK to Greece to seek out her sperm donor's identity. Her genetic parentage has left her with a hole in her heart – a condition as metaphorical as it is medical – making her desperate to find answers about where she came from.
At this point, I became worried that the plot's emphasis on Areia's existential crisis would portray ART as inherently damaging to the children it creates. However, I was pleased to discover that this play was careful not to ignore the diverse range of views and reactions that children can feel towards their ART conception and birth.
These different points of view were brought to life through the donor siblings Areia meets along the way, who are generally well-adjusted and content with their origin. These donor siblings have many different opinions about meeting their sperm donor and whether their conception was more 'science' than 'love'. Their dialogue highlights the changing definition of family. Are the donor siblings brothers and sisters? Is the donor a father? Are non-biological parents less parents than genetic ones?
Written by Satinder Chohan, 'Half of Me' is aimed at a young audience and based on carefully researched, real-life anonymous case studies and issues. It was produced by a collaboration between Tamasha Theatre Company, Generation Arts, and the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, with funding from the Wellcome Trust.
That young people were the intended audience made sense of the more atypical elements of the play. The cast was entirely comprised of young people of varying talent, the script was punctuated with frequent humour, and more than once the cast broke out into a choreographed dance set to upbeat electronic music. But, despite these youthful spins, I didn't find that the humour and flash detracted from important questions about identity, family, and the ethics surrounding sperm donation.
The play explored many conflicting rights between donors and children, and I was impressed by how the play navigated the ethical tension, even if the audience's investment in Areia's story caused us to feel slightly more sympathy towards her side.
Do children born of sperm donation have a right to disclose their identity to the donor? Areia argues that they do, but at the beginning of the play the viewer is also exposed to the fears that motivated her father to keep her identity secret. Do children have a right to know their donor's identity and access their genetic heritage, as Areia also frequently insists? The viewer may find themselves torn between wanting Areia to succeed in her goal, while also seeing merit in protecting the donor's privacy.
The climax of the play, where Areia confronts Grecian lawmakers to try and have the laws changed, explored ethical issues at the level of policy and law which I had not previously considered. Should more countries remove complete anonymity for sperm donors, even if it causes fewer men to donate? Should the elimination of total donor anonymity apply to contracts made in the past? And is it fair that the life and identity of a child can be restricted by laws and contracts they had no say in making?
The importance of working through these hard questions was spoken by a clinician at the fertility clinic where Areia was conceived: 'Because there is no right answer.'
I found 'Half of Me' a fairly entertaining and well-researched exploration of some of the basic ethical and social issues in ART. It was not a deeply complex or emotional story, but it was thought provoking in its own way and kept me engaged from start to finish. I would enthusiastically recommend this play to teenagers, but I think it could also be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in social and ethical issues surrounding ART.
'Half of Me' will be performed again in October of 2016 as part of the Centre for Family Research's 50th anniversary celebrations, and will be performed throughout 2017 as a prelude to Satinda Chohan's next production, 'Made in India'.