Park Theatre, London – until 13 April 2019
From the late 1930s for nearly forty years, Mary Barton and her husband Berthold Wiesner ran a pioneering fertility clinic: they were among the first to offer, with full anonymity, artificial insemination by donor for couples they thought were “good stock” (it was a eugenic time in many quarters ).
The hitch is that although they destroyed all records in 1967, it became apparent that Wiesner himself supplied the great majority of the sperm, and therefore fathered between 600 and 1000 children over the years.
To be fair, the modern emphasis on the uniqueness of DNA was not regarded with the mystique that surrounds it today. Actually, in my own lifetime, it was only when women began donating eggs that I ever heard people talking about “genetic material” and the need o know “who you are”. Most families, on Barton’s insistence, never told the child at all. It was only in 2005 that the law gave AID children the right, at 18, to know about their biological progenitor.
However, the scale of what they did – maybe a thousand babies, all in the middle-class cadre of a country not immense – was appallingly, shockingly, wickedly irresponsible. It sowed seeds of accidental sibling incest and diseases of inbreeding.
This odd, rather creepy play by Maud Dromgoole is not about the couple, but imagines meetings and gatherings (a few of which did happen) of the “Barton brood” years later. Tatty Hennessy’s production uses two actors – Emma Fielding and Katy Stephens – and a series of changing lit frames on the wall to indicate who they are being. It isn’t perfect: the changes are not well signalled, and the characters they all seem too similar in generation, accent and body-language. Each is respectively 18 and 23 characters, Stephens often recurring a key figure as “Kieran”, a lonely man obsessed with finding as many siblings as possible. To the point that when one poor girl is having a baby, he throws a baby-shower which overwhelms her, full of strangers instinctively buying the same nappy-cake gift and gleefully comparing noses, jawlines, gluten-intolerances, gag reflexes, tastes in marmite etc. It’s like a cosy version of the Midwich Cuckoos. Another is “Bret” who discovers to his horror that he has married a sib, and wants their baby aborted. No spoilers, but I shuddered at the actual outcome.
There are a dozen tiny plots: a lesbian couple who discover their link and realize it doesn’t matter, a bereavement, family back-stories, hospital scenes, a quite funny moment with a chirpy registrar and a great deal of musing (especially from the really creepily obsessed Kieran) on the importance of family.
But it isn’t family. It’s a genetic disaster, a sad heritage of medical arrogance, and I found it hard to believe how many of the characters seem pleased to find their weird, unfamiliar sibs. I’d run a mile. There are also a couple of bafflingly unnecessary whimsical scenes, one about a ventriloquist and one about chickens, which add less than nothing. For all the ingenuity, it just didn’t click. Yet I would love to see a play imagining the monstrous Barton -Wiesner marriage and the eugenic satisfaction they drew from their vainglorious biological cheating. Hope someone writes that.
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