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Theatre Review: Bodies, Royal Court Theatre

29 August 2017
Appeared in BioNews 915

At the opening of the play, directed by Jude Christian, couple Clem and Josh have decided to pursue surrogacy after suffering multiple miscarriages. We find out that the egg will come from a Russian donor, be fertilised with Josh's sperm, and then implanted in an Indian surrogate.

The play follows Clem and Josh during the pregnancy, including Clem's relationship with her father David, who has motor neurone disease, and her imaginary or possibly hallucinatory relationship with her future daughter, embodied as a teenager.

During the pregnancy, the ban on international surrogacy in India is passed. It is unclear how the new rules will apply to pregnancies already underway and the uncertainty adds an extra dimension of stress to an already fraught situation.

Clem sees herself as socially conscious: she's proud of her working-class background, doesn't believe in private education, and as a successful TV producer has made documentaries about female genital mutilation and teen mental health. She tries to steer a moral course between her trade-unionist father and her husband Josh, whose attitude is that if money can solve a problem, then why not use it?

But David has a keen nose for exploitation, and after discovering that surrogates in India have no legal protections, he tells Clem that he is ashamed of her. His own care is provided by shrewd and kind Oni, who has left her own daughter and husband behind in Africa. The performances were all excellent, but especially Justine Mitchell and Philip Goldacre as Clem and David, who were wonderfully moving as a father and daughter who love each other but don't know how to deal with what the other has become. 

The Daughter appears throughout the play, and it is through her that we find out the most about Lakshmi, the surrogate. As the pregnancy progresses and Clem becomes more anxious, the Daughter's reports of Lakshmi's happiness and wellbeing get progressively worse and Lakshmi begins to appear in the hallucinations herself. This culminates in Clem's wild beliefs that Lakshmi's own daughter has been abducted and that the fetus is a malevolent crow consuming Lakshmi from the inside.

The play delivers some wonderful small moments: there are hints at Clem's lost friendships, the people she has let go from her life once they became parents because it was too painful. My favourite scene takes place in the waiting room at the Delhi clinic, when Josh finds out that Clem has sneaked off for a cigarette, her first since they started trying for a baby. They laugh and tease each other, and you get an insight into the happiness they shared before infertility cast a shadow over their lives.

In the dramatic climax of the play, each of the couple in turn try to gain David's approval or at least understanding before they travel to collect the baby. Clem gives an impassioned speech to her father, about how he cannot understand her grief at her own childlessness. Later, Josh begs him to reconsider, inadvertently admitting that he would have been happy without a child, but that watching Clem's misery is more than he can bear. 

But both of these exchanges come across as heavy handed, and that comes from Vivienne Franzmann's script, rather than the performances. We can already see Clem's pain, we already know how isolated she has become, to the point where they can't even spend time with Josh's nieces and nephews. It's been subtle and believable up to this point. Clem's 'not having children makes me hate everyone who does', and Josh's 'I've taken razorblades out of her purse when her period's due…she wanted to die' seem unnecessary and detract from the feeling of authenticity.

As a viewer, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Clem, but I also worried that she was doing a disservice to other women affected by infertility. Taken together, her suicidal thoughts, conversations with an imaginary daughter, and convincing herself the child Lakshmi is carrying a parasitic crow lead inexorably to her seeming 'hysterical'.

Although I see the irony in the hysteria of a woman who feels let down by her uterus, I don't think the trope is helpful at the best of times, and I certainly don't think it is a fair reflection of the women (and men) who use surrogacy to build their families.

In addition to surrogacy, 'Bodies' touches on a number of other issues, notably the expectations placed upon women, and donor conception. Both the Daughter and David tell Clem that she will not be the mother of her baby because she is using a donor egg. The theme recurs in Clem's conversations with the Daughter as she considers the traits the child will inherit from Josh alone, and wonders if and when they will tell her the truth.

Ultimately 'Bodies' is a play that asks a lot of questions but offers no answers. I would have liked to know more about Lakshmi's real story and experiences, not just what played out in Clem's mind.

We don't get to see Josh and Clem's decision process, how they choose the agency, or the country. While I understand this probably wouldn't make good drama, I also found it unsatisfying.

Ultimately the crux of the play is how willing Clem is to overlook the potential for abuse and exploitation to get the child she wants more than anything. But to be able to have a moral view on her choices, I would want to know how they were made.

19 March 2018 - by Sarah Norcross 
Much as I love a laugh and a joke, 'Stuffed', billed as a comedy about fertility and IVF, seemed to me to have the potential of being insensitive and in poor taste - would I and the audience see the funny side?
4 December 2017 - by Jen Willows 
Of Kith and Kin is a play about surrogacy that seems to have very little to say about surrogacy...
2 October 2017 - by Melissa Elsworth 
Why would a woman choose to carry a baby for another person? Should money be involved? Does surrogacy exploit vulnerable women? And what other ethical issues are involved in the surrogacy process?...
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