Barbican Theatre, London ****
Runs: 1hr 30mins without interval
Review of perf seen May 2, 2019
The desire to conceive, to be a mother. What a mighty force it is and how society has made it, in the West at least, one of its pre-eminent priorities. Millions has been spent on fertility research. And millions are now spent on treatment in ensuring that the desire to conceive is met.
Julia Leigh’s Avalanche comes as part of Fertility Fest, a festival on all things to do with the science of making babies, fertility and infertility organised by Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vautier and hosted at the Barbican as part of their Life Rewired season looking at how science and technology is changing our lives.
Both Hepburn and Vautier have undergone IVF treatment and written about it and believe in the power of Art and artists to help relay some of the physical and psychological trauma involved in telling the stories of recent revolutionary, pioneering scientific advances with their effect on society.
Avalanche, originally a best-selling novel by the Australian born Leigh, is also based on her own experience of undergoing IVF.
Now turned into a solo stage show, it’s no coincidence that Avalanche is subtitled `A Love Story’, for in every sense – the writing, its stage presentation and the way it is delivered by Maxine Peake – amounts to a love story: between two people badly wanting to make a child between them, and the love for a child that permeates the entire 90 minutes, the vision of which appears as a perpetual reminder in a young girl and boy `childling’ on stage.
This is the dream that Peake’s protagonist – a thirty something scriptwriter/film director – constantly keeps before her as she endures cycle after cycle of IVF hormone injections, egg harvesting, implanting, scans, phone calls, and disappointments.
Why a human body would decide to put itself through such an upsetting, tremulous process is never really explored. It’s a given.
Instead, Leigh’s writing emphasises and Anne-Louise Sarks’ production in Peake’s performance ensures at all times that this is one woman’s highly personal, autobiographical story of being in love with a man – Paul – wanting to bear his child, his reluctance in part to commit to being a parent, the tensions between her career as an artist and the insistent drive,, nonetheless for motherhood.
They split; they separate. They get together again, and try again. Then split again – almost a metaphor for the life of an embryo!
And this time, the single woman decides to go it all alone, the visits to the clinic, sleepless nights and apprehension waiting for the clinic phone call and the dilemmas as to whether to `freeze’ the eggs or go for natural transplants.
For anyone who has not been through the process it’s a harrowing account. But the beauty of this particular representation lies in Maxine Peake herself.
In Marg Horwell’s white box setting that steadily grows more ominous as the story progresses until finally splitting into an avalanche of white plaster chunks, Peake is beguilingly smiley, engagingly upbeat and almost jokey despite the horrors her body is going through.
Leigh likens the IVF process to a slope, sliding down from hope to despair. The abyss is a constant nightmare and after one more disappointment, suicide is even considered.
But always, this `Polyanna juggernaut’, as Paul nicknames, refuses to accept failure. She pushes on relentlessly, inexorably, stubbornly. One more round of IVF – it will only take just one egg to achieve fertilisation and her life will change…
Peake has never been so at ease or so easy to sympathise with. She keeps our attention throughout and at the end, succumbs to devastation and the inevitable with arms outstretched and wonder in the realisation that it is possible to `love intensely and more widely’ than she had ever imagined. The world can still be a place to love even without birthing your own child.
Optimism aside, the other point Avalanche makes is the sheer cost of the procreative urge. Tens of thousands of dollars are poured into the passage of time `Polyanna’ is trying for a child extending from her mid-30s to early 40s. And with every passing year, her chance of conception and the embryos achieving successful implant decrease.
A sobering, haunting journey that carries as much warning as it does perhaps solace to those thinking of having IVF or have had it as well as a kind of delight in the sheer beauty and bravura of Peake’s performance.
Avalanche, A Love Story
By Julia Leigh
Woman: Maxine Peake
Childling: Alexander Quinian, Kit Rakusen,
Ausra Ramdharry-Panka, Kiera Thompson
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Set and Costume Design: Marg Horwell
Lighting Design: Lizzie Powell
Composer and Sound Design: Stefan Gregory
Sound Associate: Peter Rice
Dramaturgy: Penny Black (script), Kirsty Housley (production), Hilary Bell (pre-production)
Movement Coach: Imogen Knight
Casting Director: Lisa Makin
Children’s Casting Director: Debbie O’Brien Casting
Presented by the Barbican and Fertility Fest.
Co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Audible
Supported by Australian High Commission in London
World premiere at the Barbican Theatre, May 1, 2019.
Runs to May 12
Review posted on this site, May 4, 2019