‘You write what’s said’ – Andrea Dunbar, Clio Barnard and The Arbor

The Arbor DVD cover

The Arbor

I caught a very interesting film the other week, and strongly recommend it for all sorts of reasons.

Clio Barnard has been inspired by Verbatim Theatre and used it to make a film about the life of playwright Andrea Dunbar, probably best known for her script for ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’. Dunbar’s life is the definition of tragedy; she once said ‘You write what’s said’ and her intensely autobiographical plays were written by hand on a notepad, as the children slept.

A teenage mother who grew up on, and wrote about, the Buttershaw council estate in Bradford, Dunbar caught the eye of Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court in the 1980s, when she entered the Young Writers’ Festival.

Her handwritten green biro script stood out. Over the next 13 years her association with the Royal Court and Stafford-Clark was not an easy one, Dunbar lived in a world where all the middle class fantasies of life in northern poverty in Britain was really true, but with none of the happy endings. Stafford-Clark commissioned a longer version of her first script and then, ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’ for the Royal Court after The Arbor’s success, but at home she didn’t have the time or space to write, so could only send a few pages at a time in the post. If he sent her payments, her father would steal them; when he had first tracked her down, she was living with her children in a battered wives’ home in Keighley. Dunbar who became an alcoholic, died in 1990 of a brain haemorrhage aged just 29, collapsing in her local pub.

In her film ‘The Arbor’, winner of the 2010 Guardian First Film award and many other awards, Clio Barnard has created a version of ‘verbatim film’ – where actors (in a clever touch, some of the original actors from ‘The Arbor’ and ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’) lip-synch to the words that Dunbar’s grown-up children, friends and family voice in interviews about their memories. It’s a film in which Barnard wanted to provoke and show that the ‘truth is unstable’, and the lip-synching does just that, it is at once eerie and compelling. It blurs the line between fact and fiction.

Excerpts from Dunbar’s play ‘The Arbor’ are enacted in the open spaces of the estate she set it on. Some of the writing comes across as incredibly naive, vulnerable, and you realise just how young and damaged she already was, as a young actress who bears a striking resemblance to Andrea Dunbar voices the autobiographical words.

The film shows what a difficult route writing was for her, she was threatened by neighbours who thought the film of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’ portrayed them badly; she also faced prosecution for claiming benefit without disclosing her writing royalties. With no support network, that she managed to write anything, is something amazing.

But the film is as much about the aftermath of Dunbar’s life as it is about her. Her daughter Lorraine’s story is heart-breaking, as a child she suffered parental neglect and then domestic violence and racism in adult life, so she became a prostitute and drug addict, who was sentenced to three years in prison for the manslaughter of her baby son.

In his review of the film, Peter Bradshaw,(http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/oct/21/the-arbor-film-review) makes the point that the film ‘challenges a lot of what we assume about gritty realist theatre or literature from the tough north. In many cases, it is produced by men whose gender privileges are reinforced by university, and who have acquired the means and connections to forge a stable career in writing. However grim their plays or novels, there is a kind of unacknowledged, extra-textual optimism: the author, at least, has got out, has made it.’

Dunbar never got out.

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About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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