The drama and final act in the life of a playwright
An innovative hybrid of documentary, staged reading, fictional feature, and confessional, “The Arbor’’ defies categorization not merely for art’s sake - although its artistry is without question - but because conventional forms seem inadequate for such a harrowing story.
In “The Arbor,’’ we are told from the outset, actors lip-synch verbatim interviews that director Clio Barnard conducted with the family, friends, and colleagues of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar. In 1980, when she was just 18, London’s Royal Court Theatre produced Dunbar’s first play, “The Arbor,’’ an autobiographical, kitchen-sink drama set in the brutal Buttershaw estate (housing project) in Yorkshire where Dunbar lived and where her brief but searing body of work is set. (She also wrote the screenplay for the1987 film version of her play “Rita, Sue and Bob, Too!’’) In 1990, at 28, Dunbar collapsed in the local pub that was “her home,’’ as her daughter Lorraine (played by Manjinder Virk) tells us. Her death was attributed to a brain hemorrhage, but alcoholism likely was a factor, too.
Compelling stuff, sure. But Barnard eschews film clips and talking heads in favor of this exquisitely crafted docudrama. The artifice is as deliberate as it is effective: Rather than the illusion of reality, Barnard’s technique draws attention to how “documentaries’’ are as deliberately constructed as fictional films. Like a play, “The Arbor’’ offers a representation of reality that’s both confrontational and, given the unsettling material, blessedly distanced. Among the unforgettable sequences are staged scenes from “The Arbor,’’ acted out on the green of the actual estate, with presumed actual residents looking on with curiosity and disbelief at the dramatization of chilling domestic abuse.
But Dunbar’s tragic life makes up just part of this story. Barnard focuses on her three children, fathered by three different men, who recount tales of how their mother kept them locked in a bedroom of the barren flat while she wrote or went out drinking. The eldest, Lorraine, is half-Pakistani, which made her the object of scorn to many, including her mother. She offers devastating testimony, at times poetic in its sparseness, of parental abuse and neglect. Eventually, “The Arbor’’ becomes Lorraine Dunbar’s story. Lorraine’s hellish life parallels her mother’s and the lives of the characters in her plays: a descent into heroin addiction, prostitution, domestic abuse, and a prison sentence for manslaughter in the drug-related death of her 2-year-old son.
Barnard’s weaving of past and present, life and art, is unnerving and thrilling. It’s also fitting for a legacy of dysfunction and despair, marked by flashes of brilliance.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.