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23 October 2019

Donmar Warehouse’s [BLANK] skewers middle-class feminist benevolence

Plus: The Old Vic’s Lungs. 

By Helen Lewis

It’s not always possible to pinpoint the moment you fall in love, but this time it was easy. Halfway through Alice Birch’s extraordinary [BLANK] came the unmistakable opening bars of a two-decades-old song that I assumed everyone apart from me had forgotten (“Fuck the Pain Away” by Peaches, a staple of my workout playlist). It was a moment of unexpected human connection, and it reminded me of James Baldwin’s manifesto for art, which “has to be a kind of confession… If you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too.” From then on, rational thought was suspended. I surrendered to this play completely.

[BLANK] is all about the connections between lives. Commissioned by Clean Break, a theatre company that works with women affected by the criminal justice system, it is a “modular play”. Alice Birch wrote 100 scenes, and directors are invited to choose their own adventure. There are no names in the script, so it is up to them to decide if the same characters recur across the narrative, or if the scenes fit together like jagged, unconnected shards.

In Maria Aberg’s version, there is a spine to the story. We follow one woman’s life in painful bursts. Here she is, breaking into her mother’s house for money; here she is, selling sex on the street; here she is, being restrained in prison; here she isn’t, as a social worker informs her mother of her death. Interspersed with this one life are fragments of others – no room at the refuge, no one coming during visiting hours – that emphasise the commonality of these events. All this has happened, is happening, will happen, in every time and every place.

This is a demanding play: each vignette whizzes by, challenging you to work out its relationship to the others. Then, a lacuna: a long, glittering scene depicting an all-female dinner party, where middle-class feminist benevolence is thoroughly skewered. The women applaud each other for making documentaries about unfortunate women (total Bafta-bait, you know?) and being nice to the “help” (here, the drug dealers who courier over their coke). An older lesbian couple reveal, to much cooing, that they met in Bolivia, “working on an orphanage”. It is left to Shona, introduced as one woman’s new girlfriend, to observe that Bolivia is “probably where your drugs come from”. (And maybe it was the cocaine trade that created those orphans, hmm?) The whole scene fizzed with electricity. It ended with a small child, in safety goggles, smashing up the dinner table.

With [BLANK], Birch has done something equally violent to the concept of the Big Issues Drama, with all its attendant pitfalls. At 33, she is already an award-winning playwright (she also story-edited the second season of HBO’s Succession) and her intellectual self-confidence shines through this text. Yes, a successful writer interrogating the lives of women at the margins might come off as condescending. So why not embrace that discomfort, rather than avoid it? Helped by a first-rate cast, [BLANK] is so good I left the theatre immediately wanting to watch it again.

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I wish I could say the same about Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, a two-hander with similarly few narrative trappings. Its two characters are known only as M and W – a man and woman trying to decide whether to have a baby. Given the size of the Old Vic’s auditorium, minimalism is a courageous route for any production to take. Rob Howell’s set is simply a grid of solar panels, and there are no scene changes as the action speeds through the years. All the pressure falls on the dialogue (punchy, funny, but lacking subtext) and the actors: Claire Foy and Matt Smith, fresh from their stint as the Queen and Prince Philip on The Crown.

She is garrulous, anxious, an overthinker; he is taciturn, preferring press-ups to put-downs. These gender roles seem old-fashioned when these two characters are so proud of being progressive. But then, underneath the gags about Ikea queues, Macmillan’s script is another subtle dissection of hypocrisy. M and W acknowledge that having a baby is loading yet more strain on a crumbling planet, but they search for reasons to do it anyway, because… well, they want one. Smart people like them should have children because, after all, stupid people do. And perhaps their baby will be a new Einstein?

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After 70 minutes of earnest, bathos-laden discussion, the narrative performs a handbrake turn for the last quarter-hour, providing a coda that feels hasty and making emotional demands that feel unearned. Foy and Smith are fine actors, but their chemistry alone is not enough to fill all this time and space. And the music! Starting with Radiohead and ending with Nick Cave is my generation’s idea of Well Deep, Innit. Give me Peaches and her weird Canadian electronica any day. 

“Lungs” runs until 9 November. “[BLANK]” runs until 30 November

Donmar Warehouse, London WC2

The Old Vic, London SE1

This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state