A woman’s breasts are not hers alone. You might think they are. They’re part of your body after all. They consist of your skin and your flesh. But they are public property and this is something you learn early. A woman has just been told to cover up while breastfeeding at the V&A, and there are shops selling padded underwear for girls as young as seven.
In Monica Dolan’s provocative debut play, The B*easts, she tells the story of a woman who makes the decision to give her eight-year old daughter breast enhancements, sparking tabloid outcry and public disgust.
Dolan filters this story through the character of Tessa, a psychotherapist who has worked with ‘Karen’, the mother of the child. Tessa recounts the details of the case, from the young child’s fascination with the female form since infancy, to the mother’s decision to allow her surgery, to the messy aftermath.
Tessa is not a completely dispassionate narrator and it becomes apparent she has personal reasons for being invested in the girl’s situation. But her analytical manner is a tool with which Dolan can unpick the issues surrounding child sexualisation and the ways women’s bodies are viewed, in the media and in the world.
It’s an intelligent piece of writing. Information is relayed in a precise and measured way, as Dolan examines her story from every angle, while seeding questions in the audience’s mind, about the media’s role in the way women perceive themselves – with newspapers gleefully counting down the days until a famous young actress is ‘legal’ – about the way breasts are depicted as being sexual and nurturing, but rarely, if ever, both.
She also raises the question of whether our changing attitudes towards gender identity might impact on people’s thinking regarding children as sexual beings and touches, perhaps too lightly, on class and the differing set of expectations placed on women from different social backgrounds.
Performing her material herself, Dolan has taken a bold approach with this play. While John Hoggarth’s production is static and not particularly theatrical, there’s a power to it and this is also down to Dolan’s performance.
Wearing a figure-swamping jumper and vaping throughout, Dolan conveys the psychotherapist’s professional poise, her care with words and her surface coolness, while occasionally letting anger and emotion overtake her when she speaks of the things this young girl has been subjected to.
Throughout the play, Tessa receives phone calls from family members. These, and the revelations contained within them about her relationship with her own body, end up being a distraction from what is an intentionally challenging piece, destined to create debate.