Plays, of course, are meant to be seen and not read, but it’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, it encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely. For the third year, here is our #ReadaPlayaWeek initiative. And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices.
Week 6: Andrea Dunbar’s The Arbor (1980)
I wasn’t aware that Andrea Dunbar died so young until after reading her debut play, The Arbor. Most famous for Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Dunbar continued to live in the area (the rough area of Bradford, Brafferton Arbor) that she grew up in, and where much of her work is set, until her death. Maybe this isn’t too much of a surprise considering the protagonist in this play says “I like it how it is. I’d never change from how I am” (Dunbar 1980: 35). The area is the setting for The Arbor, an autobiographical play which her English teacher encouraged her to pursue writing before Max Stafford Clark picked it up to direct at the Royal Court.
Act one is set in 1977 and follows the life of 15 year old Andrea (or The Girl): she gets pregnant, has to move school, puts up with turbulent family arguments, and sadly loses the baby. Act two jumps two years where it seems that Andrea has grown up a little: the scene starts with her having just been to the bank, she’s got a job, and seems more mature than her friends when she argues ‘each to their own liking’. However, her Pakistani boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant beats up her up, and she is clearly unhappy living with him. Eventually, she flees to a hostel with a friend and rejects Yousaf when he tries to win her back. Dunbar certainly paints a tumultuous picture of her life, but the play’s concluding thoughts hint that she enjoys its commotion. She even misses her drunken dad, she says, before looking around at the hostel and remarking how quiet it is.
Dunbar has a sharp eye and ear for the characters in The Arbor and the language they speak (even capturing the northern dialect). The play also has the ambitious energy of a playwright who doesn’t feel restrained by the conventions that other playwrights may follow. Indeed, looking at its filmic quality in terms of settings, she has written it seemingly without regard to how a director might stage it. Its movement from the upper deck of a bus, to front rooms, to schoolrooms, to factory toilets reminded me of the scene changes in Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money or David Hare’s NT trilogy. In her characters and action (which presumably stems from her real life experiences) she authentically captures the social issues that surround her circumstances. She presents a working class northern setting that seems so real that it perhaps could be seen as moving into poverty porn. Amid this, the play shows the conflicts between the Pakistani and white communities, and also the growing fears around the IRA. Perhaps one of the problems, however, with a play which is so autobiographical is that it seems to be wanton of devices like metaphor which so thrive in theatre.
Dunbar’s characters have a straight-talking manner to them. Furthermore, the idea of the opening and closing stage directions to each scene being spoken and most of the characters being referred to by simple descriptions (such as The Mother) give the play a folkish quality.