In vitro veritas?

June 13, 2003

A lecturer's dramatisation of the pain, confusion and ignorance that surrounds infertility fails to deliver, says Anna Fazackerley

If people were meant to reproduce they'd be able to reproduce without any help, wouldn't they?" the middle-aged man on the street announces firmly to the camera. Director Anna Furse, a drama lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says she felt alienated and powerless when she underwent in vitro fertilisation treatment at the age of 42. Listening to the video vox pops at the beginning of Yerma's Eggs , her play about infertility, this hardly seems surprising.

It is clear from the footage that although most members of the public have a general awareness of concepts such as IVF and cloning, many are muddled or totally stumped when it comes to defining such processes.

And while some are open-minded about such scientific advances, others are staunchly negative - it just isn't natural.

Furse does not see her new production as a science lesson, but she is aiming to break down the barriers surrounding science. "I want to bring people close to the science. I was completely technophobic until I had IVF, but I had to stretch my boundaries," she explains.

Her vision is inspiring. Sadly, the reality falls rather short. The performance has no straightforward narrative. It is a collection of different stories, sounds, movement and songs. The one clear theme is that of the infertile woman, frustrated and obsessed with her inability to conceive, angry at those around her, jealous of other women with babies.

The issue is sometimes dealt with simply, in short scenes where characters from different backgrounds argue or talk about their feelings. But it is also addressed more obliquely, with sand and hot, dry sounds representing infertility, and water and rain representing fertility.

The actors sing ancient songs and speak in different languages to convey the message that this is a universal, timeless problem.

But the play is also full of technology. Biological images are projected onto the walls and onto the characters themselves. These include magnified egg cells, a sperm fertilising an egg, cell division and a blastocyst embryo. There is also novel footage of a new technique to tackle male infertility called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which we watch a single non-mobile sperm being injected directly into the egg cell.

Most memorable is the four-dimensional ultrasound imagery of a baby in utero - a miniature, moving, golden figure that is unlike any traditional black-and-white photographic scans.

The point is that the advance of such technology is changing our relationship with our bodies. "What was interior is now visible and on a great scale. With IVF, you see your eggs on ovaries and then the embryo at 48 hours," Furse says.

But if she is truly trying to battle against technophobia and make people comprehend the exciting possibilities of assisted reproductive technology, something has gone very wrong.

A sort of cage on wheels is used to represent a hospital, which is just about as far from reassurance about the men in white coats as you can get.

In one scene, a woman lifts her hospital gown over her head so we cannot see her face, while biological images are projected onto her passive, naked body. In another, we watch a wretched, humiliated man donating sperm.

This is not a world in which technology is celebrated or science loses its frightening mystery. Indeed, a woman contemplating IVF might well leave this production and run for the hills.

This is disappointing because Yerma's Eggs does deliver some eye-openers.

But simple, touching moments, such as the recording of a child explaining how she was conceived using IVF, are drowned in the flood of confusing or hostile images.

If the play fails to bring us closer to science, we might expect it to at least bring us nearer to understanding the experience of the infertile woman (or the infertile man, as Furse strives to make this an inclusive issue).

But again, this is only partially achieved. The emotion is certainly palpable. You can't escape the anguish of these infertile women - often because they are wailing so deafeningly at the audience. Yet for every scene that touches with its straightforward realism, there is another that undermines it with melodrama. One older female character has literally been driven mad by her frustrated desire for a child. She crawls across the stage to a backdrop of hostile laughter. At one point she appears, knitting endless reams of wool with farcically gigantic knitting needles. Perhaps we are meant to feel disturbed, or full of pity, or shocked. Instead, the performance is rather embarrassing to watch and succeeds only in distancing us from the play.

Yerma's Eggs wants to be controversial, testing and thought-provoking. But as it lacks a clear narrative, it also lacks a clear conclusion. The audience is more likely to leave with a sense of bemusement, not knowing quite what to think.

The play ends with a long string of philosophical questions about what is truly natural. "Is spring water natural?" an actor asks. "Organ donation? Plastic? Carbon monoxide?"

These are interesting ideas. But it seems unlikely that this performance could ever chip away at the prejudice of the sceptical middle-aged man in the video clip or enlighten those who did not fully understand the issues.

And that is a shame. Furse did not want this to be a science lesson but perhaps that is just what we need.

Yerma's Eggs showed at Riverside Studios, London, last week and is at At-Bristol, Harbourside, Bristol, until June 14.

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