Review: Bodies, Royal Court ‘Problematic Play on Surrogacy’

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Oh, this is a shame. This play is a disappointment, unfortunately. Not only is it an average production, at best, but it is problematic too. In fact, the fact that it is average is inextricably linked to the fact that it is problematic.

The subject matter itself was a good starting point. In Bodies, playwright Vivienne Franzmann sets out to examine the global surrogacy industry, from its questionable morality to its exploitation of vulnerable desperate women. However, rather than anchoring itself in the experiences of the women overseas who are exploited, it instead chooses to tell the play from the White woman’s point of view.

As a result, we have a rather tired play on childlessness. We are obliged to follow Clem (Justine Mitchell) through her excessive wailing and gnashing of teeth as she wilfully ignores the morality of her buying an egg from a Russian donor and implanting it into the womb of an impoverished young Indian woman all so she can have a baby that she believes she deserves.

Frankly, another play on childlessness doesn’t interest me. However, a play on the exploitation of desperate woman does. Within this play there is the potential for an interesting insight, but Bodies gets it all wrong. The centre of the story here should not be Clem but Lakshmi, (Salma Hoque), the (very) young Indian woman whose womb Clem hires out for her own needs.

Not only would this have been a politically more astute path to take but, actually, had Bodies chosen this path, we would have got a far better show.

Even if you ignore the whiteness behind the decision to focus on Clem, just the structure of the story screams out that it has been skewed towards the wrong central character. I simply don’t understand how this play passed through so many hands without someone saying, “we’re telling the wrong story here.” It is so obvious.

Taking the whole “Save the Cat” plot structure by way of example, Clem has no “call to action”. Nor is there a particularly significant awakening or change for her. Her character arc is pretty bland: she wants a baby, she does questionable things, her Dad says she’s wrong, they come to some form of agreement. I mean, meh.

Now compare that to Lakshmi’s story. She is a very young woman in poverty in India with two kids of her own but almost no means to feed them. Suddenly an offer of a huge sum of money comes along. It could change her life. The price? Leaving her young family for nine months, and to bear the pain of pregnancy, all to give birth to someone else’s kid. Lakshmi takes that money. But the whole set-up hits the fan and she is left in the most desperate of circumstances.

So, as you can see, Lakshmi’s dramatic arc is profound. Her shift from kind and trusting, to angry, cynical and awakened is a huge shift. This is, unequivocally, Lakshmi’s story. This fact screamed out at me during every minute of this play, yet we are denied.

I was so frustrated, and the embarrassment just got more acute as we were compelled to wallow in the indulgent self-pity of the White woman. When global issues and stories are explored, we have to move away from the White woman being at the centre of the story.

But more than this, there’s the focus on childlessness itself. I’m not about to deny that the distress of women who desperately want children isn’t real; of course it is. But it is becoming a tricky stereotypical depiction of women on the stage. We do see it quite often (In fact, Yerma is re-opening next week at the Young Vic and that covers similar territory. And better.) And if we’re going to revisit it yet again, I’m looking for something more than yet another depiction of women as being defined be their ability/inability to bear children.

That new angle was exploitation. If they were so inclined, the creatives could even have shifted it so that it was the immorality of the entire industry that was the focus here. That would have redeemed the central character, Clem, somewhat. But no. That option wasn’t taken, and the result is a show that not only brings nothing new to the table, but actually offers up more problems.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to August 12th.

Tickets from £12.

Production images by Bronwen Sharp

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