As a text Alice Birch’s [Blank] is a phenomenal thing. The play began as a co-commission between National Theatre Connections and theatre company Clean Break, marking its 40th anniversary this year, which makes work with and about women who have had experience of the criminal justice system.
It consists of 100 scenes all exploring the subject of mothers and daughters in the care and prison systems, trauma, damage, love and its absence. Some of these scenes are written for adults, some for children. Some are fragments, others more like short plays. They can be performed in any order. It’s up to the director how they are arranged. A version was performed in 2018 as part of National Theatre Connections; now Maria Aberg has assembled 27 of them with a cast of 12 adults and two children for her production of the Donmar.
Questions of care and maternal connection arise again and again. A daughter breaks into her mother’s house, desperate for money. Two kids in foster care demarcate the space they are obliged to share. A woman is informed of the death of her daughter by a nervous babbling young police officer. Another woman describes killing her own two children as if it were an act of release. Cumulatively, the effect is bleak, brutal and stark, with only a little light allowed to shine in.
The writing is exquisite in its precision: every hesitation and contraction matters; the performances are rich and raw. Thusitha Jayasundera seems to collapse internally as she receives word of her daughter’s suicide. Kate O’Flynn radiates pain and anger as she meets with the mother who was absent for most of her life.
This all takes place on Rosie Elnile’s two-level set, with its faintly institutional feel, as close-ups of the performers’ faces are projected on the walls. The other cast members often stand in the background, watching, rocking, witnessing.
Any production of this play is essentially an act of curation. Aberg’s placement of the longest scene towards the end of the production feels pointed. A group of middle-class friends gather to eat labneh, order cocaine from a local dealer, and meet the new girlfriend of one of their number. The interloper, played by Shona Babayemi, is increasingly repelled by their casual affluence and performative compassion. It’s an impeccably crafted scene but feels a lot blunter than what has come before. The device of making the working-class character, with her experience of growing up in an abusive environment, force them to face their complacency feels pat.
Birch writes about pain with startling clarity. Though Aberg’s production can feel a bit cold at times, it is compellingly acted and palpably angry. In several scenes objects get smashed, and the debris is left to lie on the floor in treacherous shards. There are some things that can’t be swept away.