Alice Birch’s self-consciously experimental, often pretentious, infuriating, occasionally compelling [BLANK] is much more interested in stretching the perimeters of dramatic form and construction than in providing strong narrative content. You might say the same of Caryl Churchill, whose work in general and Top Girls in particular has clearly influenced Birch. (Churchill was in the audience on the first night.)
But whereas Churchill’s obfuscations cohere, Birch’s have no discernible continuity – at least not in [BLANK]. And it’s deliberate. What Bitch has ambitiously set out to do is create a new art form – a do-it-yourself-play. And indeed, it has to be said that, working closely with Clean Break – an inspirational group of 40 years standing whose work revolves around women who have suffered hardship and deprivation at the hands of the criminal justice system – Birch does break new ground. With a vengeance! The printed text of her play is 516 pages long, comprises 100 scenes and should find its way into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest modern play ever written.
Obviously aware that there is no way it could be performed in its entirety, Birch’s practical solution is to invite anyone attempting to stage it to treat the text with total freedom, to use as many or as few scenes as they choose and to perform those scenes in whatever order they prefer. Not only that, they’re even at liberty to repeat certain scenes should they wish to do so. They can call the characters they’re playing by whatever names they want, and even construct their own narrative. Nor are there any specific set requirements. In Maria Aberg’s current staging, designer Rosie Elnile has created a series of bleak, box-like rooms, aided by a few props and some visual projections.
The number of scenes selected for this production is 27 out of the 100. Many of them are short and very fragmentary, without an obvious beginning or ending. A daughter breaks into her mother’s home and robs her. Another mother disapproves of her daughter’s violent boyfriend. A woman has difficulty finding accommodation for herself and her children. Another has issues with a drug-addicted daughter. Yet another stabs her two daughters to death. A police officer confronts a woman with news of her daughter’s murder.
Anger, pain and misery seep miasma-like through practically every scene. Gloom and doom are pervasive. Very occasionally the bleakness is enlivened by a snatch of dialogue as when one of the characters asks how it is possible to “barely” have sex with someone. “You just lean back” is the reply.
The longest, most cohesive scene (at about 45 minutes) is a typical middle-class dinner party whose all female guests, including a cocaine addict, dine on labneh and fattoush. There’s a party pooper in the shape of a seriously angry working class girl who vents her fury on the failure of a political system for denying impoverished, neglected people such as herself a decent life. It’s a furious blast at the imbalance between the haves and have-nots in which all underprivileged women – be it mothers or their daughters – are forever victimised. Ironically, it seems at times to be taking a swipe at the very same class of people who patronise the theatre.
For all the playwright’s attempts at trail-blazing or breaking new theatrical ground, I cannot say I sympathised with her ambition. I found the evening unenlightening, not particularly entertaining and singularly undramatic.
That said, the hard-working, emotionally committed cast of 16 women Aberg has assembled are brilliant – particularly in the dinner sequence, which boasts one of the finest pieces of naturalistic ensemble acting I have seen in years – with especially fine work from Zainab Hasan, Jackie Clune, Shona Babayemi, Thusitha Jayasundera, Kate O’Flynn and Jemima Rooper. It’s also stunningly well directed. I just wish the sum of its 27 parts had been more involving and less bitty, depressing and nihilistic.