Over the last 40 years, Clean Break have been one of the great enablers of both writing by women and writing about women, particularly those affected by the criminal justice system. This latest commission consists of 100 different scenes. Some are intended to be played only by children, some by adults and children, and some by adults alone. Those staging the scenes can decide how many they want to produce and in which order.
At the Donmar, director Maria Aberg has selected 22 scenes which are played by a top-notch all-female intergenerational cast on a design by Rosie Elnile of raised platforms and nooks. With a kitchen at its centre it is as if cocking a snook at that silly and lazy old idea that when women explore their lives and relationships on stage the result must be purely domestic and tell us nothing wider about society and the public realm.
Photos by Helen Maybanks
[Blank] is very definitely about the way we live now and how the personal and the political are deeply entwined. There is one scene which consists only of a small child taking a mallet to a table, which in the context of the scene it follows—a smug, drug-toking dinner party of liberal professionals who, snug in their own echo chamber, pride themselves on their friendship and achievements without questioning their privilege or making real change—feels like a deeply radical statement about the need to destroy the ingrained structures that keep things the same. The same people on top.
[Blank] might be read as both a manifesto for change and yet also a document of how hard it is to make change. Damage is passed from one generation to the next. A pregnant woman in prison is offered a coveted place in a mother and baby unit but worries what her other children will think, the ones who never felt chosen. The pregnant woman who confronts her mother about the childhood that was never OK might be the grown-up daughter of that first mother.
Or maybe not. The brilliance of this patchwork evening both in the writing and in Alberg’s liquid production is the way each play melts and frays into the next, and how one scene near the beginning is suddenly illuminated or your perspective shifted by something you see later.
It is like looking at ping pong balls bouncing around in a mirrored room. The result is a richly textured portrait of female experience, mother and daughter relationships, friendship and the daily pressures faced by women struggling against the odds–very definitely against austerity and cuts–to survive and raise their children.
A child watches a desperate exhausted mother try and get a baby to sleep, mothers turn their faces against their daughters, bad choices are made, impossible choices are stared down, responsibilities shirked, chaos reigns. But this is also a play about love, the yearning to love and be loved, to hold and be held. Trying to do your best in a world that too often puts women in the path of men’s violence and the dehumanising nature of a state that offers punishment not pity and fails to understand that when people feel supported rather than judged, and when capabilities are fostered and relationships strengthened, change is possible.
[Blank] is playing at the Donmar Warehouse until Sat 30 Nov.