Donmar Warehouse, London – until 30 November 2019
One hundred scenes, a cast of 16 and a set of skeletal frames, each one a different room, atmosphere, ambience, telling a different story.
This is Clean Break in one of its most ambitious presentations to date – and that’s saying something. There have been knockout productions (Pest, Joanne) and the almost impossibly demanding festival of new plays, Charged, at Soho almost a decade ago now.
But Clean Break, the women’s theatre company working with and focused around women caught up in the criminal justice system, set up over 40 years ago by two ex prisoners, have never been ones to duck a challenge.
And Alice Birch’s [Blank] – an ironic appendage for two hours that cover san enormous amount of ground – sets out and largely succeeds in Maria Aberg’s dynamic, haunting production.
It reminds us, indeed delivers, an assault on the senses that won’t let you look away, of the horrors that can lead women into disruptive, ‘criminal’ behaviour in a style that frequently references Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2012) in its sequence of short staccato scenes.
[Blanc], it’s noted, first appeared in a shorter form as part of last year’s NT Connections. But this version goes many steps further. It’s an extraordinary creation, an invitation as Birch, also an award-winning film script writer (Lady Macbeth) writes ‘to make your own play.’ ‘Scenes 1-45 are for children; scenes 46-55 for adults and children; scenes 56-100 for adults’.
In Aberg’s Donmar production, there are 22 scenes, mostly with adults, showing women – many of them mothers – at the end of their tether. We get a daughter breaking into her parents’ home in the early morning to steal desperately needed money; we get a mother with a new boyfriend turning on her daughter; we get an infanticide; and we get a gruelling – all the sharper for its understated delivery – of what it is like to feel suicidal in prison with its existential sense of non-existence, non identity.
© Helen Maybanks, Zainab Hasan and Thusitha Jayasundera – a daughter need desperate help, stealing from her own mother…
The language is brutal, caustic, often monosyllabic. And they carry an emerging theme: of abusive relationships, of a sense of hopelessness, and in particular of mothers unable to cope. The violence is all in the language and the extremes to which mothers, under pressure, and unsupported, are driven. They turn to their own mothers, to a refuge for help; they are turned away.
In the midst of this brutality of language, and of emotional violence, yet there is humour.
Aberg, too, provides a shimmering array of imagery, some video, that captures both interior moods and external surroundings; figures silently caught in shadow, a momentary spasm as a woman goes into labour adding up to a multitude of perspectives that, at the very least, offer an antidote to the often lazy, crude stereotypes (Prisoner in Cell Block H, Bad Girls – the musical) beloved of popular entertainment.
© Helen Maybanks, Joanna Horton, a mother and a child – a mother who can’t cope, what will happen to that child, what will happen to that mother…?
These are three dimensional women, human beings, not cardboard cut-outs. They deserve, at the very least, considered attention, understanding and to be listened to.
But then there is Birch’s `dinner party’. Again with a nodding reference (perhaps!) to Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Birch and Aberg lay on a climactic pre-penultimate extended scene, a miracle of collective ensemble work as a group of friends gather around a meal to `welcome’ the new partner of one of their friends.
The cross-over talk, the joshing, the jokes, the camaraderie, the `snorting’ of coke, the drink and the food, are impressive enough.
© Helen Maybanks, the dinner party that becomes the welcome from hell…
But the devil is in the tail for its finale adds up to a coruscating attack on, precisely, the kind of liberal consciences many feminists and others will recognise – of a kind of complacency and self satisfied political correctness that has Birch, through a character, marking down as `making the world worse…every f**king day.’
Birch takes no prisoners with this speech, nor in the final scene, Salt, in which a daughter again upbraids her ex-con mother for her non-mothering, for being `absent’. Pitifully, the mother has carried photos on her walls when `inside’ of an invented `happy family’ scenario.
Now she is trying to make amends. But it is too late. The relationship has been utterly destroyed. And the daughter shouts out that now she can only talk to her mother in monosyllables because `when I look at you my mind goes completely blank…’
The scene exemplifies the reality that when mothers are imprisoned, it is not just that individual who suffers; the effect on their family life, their children and their relationships can be catastrophic.
© Helen Maybanks, Sophia Brown and Lucy Edkins; prison isn’t always an answer, loss of identity, existential crise accompany being `locked up’…mental health problems proliferate…
As well as depicting the emotional and psychological traumas behind `criminal behaviour’, the many mental health problems, what Birch seems to be tussling with here has much to do with responsibility: where does the blame lie? with `bad’ mothering, with women feeling they have `no choice’ because they are in the grip of addictions, and abusive partners? Or institutions unable to help in any meaningful way?[Blank] offers no easy – or any – solution. But these performances and this production deserve the highest praise.
No one puts a step wrong, there are no false notes but amongst this high class assembly, Jemima Rooper, Kate O’Flynn, Zainab Hasan and Joanna Horton carry a lion’s share delivering the vitriol, pain and helplessness of struggling women.
In the midst of such mayhem, Thusitha Jayasunder becomes a centrifugal force of overwhelming sorrow and bewilderment.
Remarkable, a triumph in so many ways.
A new play by Alice Birch
Director: Maria Aberg
Designer: Rosie Elnile
Lighting Designer: Jess Bernberg
Sound Designer: Carolyn Downing
Movement Director: Ayse Tashkiran
Video Designer: Heta Multanen
Musical Director: Cat Beveridge
Fight Director: Rachel Bown-Williams of RC-Annie Ltd
Casting Director: Anna Cooper CDG
First perf of this production of [Blank] at the Donmar Warehouse, Oct 11, 2019 and runs to Nov 30, 2019.