Bodies, Royal Court

By guest critic Laura Vivio

Expectations are rarely exceeded or even met in critical theatre-going, yet this is certainly one case where they are. What I expected to be an impenetrable piece for anyone who does not have children, or has ever desired to become parent, turned out to be 90 minutes of intense and highly relatable theatre-making. 

Rarely do we see productions in which so many significant themes are touched upon. This can lead to opinions of the play feeling too short, too unexplored, too superficial. But this commentary doesn’t hold up in response to Bodies. The kind of theatre that I find most noteworthy isn’t that which provides the answers, but rather that which asks relevant questions. This play does exactly this. 

Questions surrounding motherhood, social class, poverty, love, ownership, sense of entitlement, narcissism, the importance of appearances, the value of progress, the rule of nature and much more are all present. The audience is left with many unanswered questions and what-ifs. We are challenged to think about what we are seeing and why we are seeing it, what is real and what isn’t, and if we only see and hear what we want to see or hear. 

The set is minimalist, beautiful, and bourgeois. It is a character in itself, where something immediately stands out – the colour yellow – on the paint on the white wall, the crib dominating stage right, of the sari worn by the Indian surrogate mother Lakshmi (played by a superb Salma Haoque). Here it represents hope and happiness, but also connotes cowardice and deceit – without doubt a predicament of what is about to unfold on stage.

It isn’t easy to sympathise with mother-to-be (or wanna-be-mother?) Clem’s needs, although Justice Mitchell is fantastic in this role. Her desire to become a mother feels, at times, incredibly selfish. But when does this unmet need turn into a form of mental illness?The £22,000 spent on a Russian egg donor and an Indian womb – to which a young woman is inevitably attached – could have been spent on therapeutic help. Also, if motherhood is at the centre of it all, why isn’t adoption an option? We find out later that this is because the child should “look as much as possible like me and Josh”. Ah, the importance of appearances. 

Tension and emotional disconnect between the characters grows when Clem’s husband Josh (played by Jonathan McGuinnness with script in hand, stepping in for an ill colleague) reveals that he never wanted a child in the first place, but wants to make his wife happy. What angers me most is the sense of entitlement his wealth gives him. He spends it liberally on Clem’s sick father David (an impeccable and deeply touching Philip Goldacre). Josh equates it with chance, opportunity and ownership, something that ex-socialist David disapproves of completely. This exacerbates the already problematic relationship with his daughter. 

The other two central characters are Oni, David’s new carer (a terrific Lorna Brown), who in her simplicity proves to be the most human and humane of them all. Then there’s Daughter, 16-year-old projection of Clem’s desired child and pivotal element of her hallucinations. Beautiful and strong Hannah Rae is perfect for the role and in raising all the questions and doubts slowly but inexorably generated by Clem’s conscience.  

There is much more to this play than the implications of surrogate motherhood alone – and a lot more beneath its surface. And I can only recommend scratching it. 

Bodies runs through 12 August.   

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