Friday, August 05, 2011

The Arbor: The disturbing life of British playwright Andrea Dunbar

Andrea Dunbar character played by Kate Rutter

Andrea Dunbar died at 29 from a brain hemorrhage exacerbated by drug and alcohol abuse after a brief and tumultuous life and a heartbreaking relationship with her daughter Lorraine who was half Pakistani.  In a township like the Buttershaw Estate in Yorkshire - which reeked of racism, poverty and violence - that in itself was the kiss of death for both of them.  Dunbar, however, became an accomplished playwright in spite of or because of her miserable life. Ironically, at the age of 29, her own daughter found herself in prison for manslaughter in the death of her infant son. 

Director Clio Barnard
"I wanted to return to another decade on to see what had changed and to reflect on previous representations of The Arbor," Director Barnard told us, although she had not read Dunbar's plays.  " I knew the film Rita Sue and Bob Too ....  picked up a copy .... which had been reprinted with A State Affair, a piece of verbatim theatre that returned to Brafferton Arbor a decade on from Andrea Dunbar’s plays."

No illusion.
Verbatim theatre became her own mantra. "I had used the technique in a short film I made in 1998 called Random Acts of Intimacy. There are similarities between this technique and the techniques used in verbatim theatre, where voices are gathered in interview and then spoken by actors on stage. In the theatre it is a kind of documentary theatre – an attempt to make the play more realistic -  but if you apply this technique to film it draws your attention to the illusion of cinema – and I think it is important to be reminded that what you are watching is an illusion."  It is a format that is complicated and one needs the reminder that it is an illusion.

An illusion: The living room

"I hope that the film communicates directly and engages the audience emotionally – in addition to that I hope that the formal technique will provoke an audience to reflect on questions of representation.  It is a distancing technique but I don’t think it interrupts the audiences’ ability to engage with the play. I see the lip-synching as having the same function and hope that the audience can still engage with the film," she explained.

"One effect of the technique is that the actors look you directly in the eye where as in a conventional talking head documentary the interviewee would look slightly off camera. I think this means the audience listen very carefully. Perhaps not seeing the real person frustrates your voyeurism and prevents them from judging the real person."

Illusion: Andrea and father of Lorraine
Illusion: Christine Bottomley
We wondered why the real characters weren't in it.  "Lorraine did not want to be on camera. All of the interviews were done without a camera, audio only. The interviews were very intimate.  I wanted to avoid being judgmental.  I wanted to try and understand a very complex and difficult situation and present that to an audience."

"We expect to leave the cinema feeling reassured but, especially with documentary, it is an artificial construction. Films and plays need to shape an ending but the lives examined in the film don’t come to an end when the film ends. The reality is that Lorraine will always be a recovering addict, she will continue to have ups and downs - and perhaps that is hard to accept."  

 Lorraine, played by Manjinder Virk

Having said that, by the end of the film Lorraine has forgiven Andrea, ‘stopped blaming’ to use her words, taken responsibility for her part in her son’s death, she is clean from drugs and looking forwards. That is a huge step for her."

Next up?  "I’m working with a group of teenage boys on Brafferton Arbor making a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s fairy story The Selfish Giant."

The Arbor is playing at The West End Cinema.  Watch the trailer here:

A brilliant piece of cinema if you don't drift from the illusion.  We look forward to the continuing saga of the next decade.  It's like a great book, you can't put it down.