Theatre

In Avalanche: A Love Story, Maxine Peake’s powerful and personal performance charts the pain and yearning – but also the wry humour – found in writer Julia Leigh’s account  of undergoing IVF. By Steve Dow.

Avalanche: A Love Story

Maxine Peake (right) and Ausra Ramdharry-Panka in Avalanche: A Love Story.
Credit: Richard Davenport

More than eight million babies have been born through in vitro fertilisation since Louise Brown, the first baby to be conceived through IVF procedures, was born in England in July 1978. In Melbourne, the late gynaecologist Carl Wood and his colleagues were not far behind, with Australia’s first IVF baby, Candice Reed, born almost two years later. Over time, proscriptive access laws have gradually been relaxed to allow single women and lesbian couples to have access to IVF, and expectations of conceiving a family have grown exponentially.

But does our culture overprize parenting, and motherhood in particular? It’s a fair question explored engagingly by three women – an actor, a writer and a director – who come together to interrogate the human drive to biologically replicate, with the help of scientists whose noble intentions are enmeshed with capitalism. In a co-production with the Barbican Theatre in London, where the play premiered in May, Sydney Theatre Company has programmed this stage adaptation of Australian writer Julia Leigh’s 2016 memoir Avalanche: A Love Story. British stage and screen actor Maxine Peake inhabits the role of the Woman, bringing authenticity to a monologue for which she must hold the stage alone, save two ghostly children occasionally circling her feet.

Like Leigh, Peake repeatedly but unsuccessfully tried IVF. Under Anne-Louise Sarks’s assured direction, we come to understand the personal cost of what Leigh and Peake endured. Peake told The Guardian of her own experience: “I did three rounds and that was me done. I felt I’d been through the mill. And I felt guilt. I felt: do I want a child enough? What people do not understand is you are pumping your body with hormones.” Over 90 minutes in this show, cycles of clinical process become cycles of grief.

Leigh’s starting point is curious, considering the road she travels: in her youth she had a “deeply ambivalent” view of motherhood. “I scorned women who thought they could only feel fulfilled if they had a child,” she writes. Peake is a perfect fit in this production, conveying the wry and deep and dark emotions of dying hope as she plays Leigh’s analogue – a woman who, approaching her sixth cycle of treatment, begins to wonder about the misleading promises of fertility programs tied to profit.

While fertility science has brought joy the world over, the positive stories promulgated by clinics mask the reality of declining success rates as women age. Australia’s National Perinatal Epidemiology and Statistics Unit, for instance, found women who started IVF before 35 had the highest success rates, while women between 40 and 44 had only an 11 per cent chance of a live birth in their first cycle. Yet in 2016, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission discovered some clinics were making success rates appear higher by publishing the number of positive pregnancy tests rather than live births.

Hope is human, however, and it is a natural instinct to want to keep trying, encouraged by photographs of newborn babies on clinic websites. At the age of 37, the Woman meets up with Paul, an old flame from university, and they contemplate marriage and children: “All the chemicals of love spilled through my bloodstream.” Despite the hurdles of Paul’s vasectomy and the Woman’s fear of needles, they visit an IVF clinic together. But then the relationship begins to unravel from Paul’s point of view – as relayed to us by the Woman – because she also wants to direct a film, for which she wrote the screenplay. Paul, it transpires, cannot contemplate a woman working while raising an infant, even if his nickname for her is the knowing “Pollyanna Juggernaut”.

As their relationship dissolves, so does Paul’s permission to use his frozen sperm. The Woman considers other possibilities as a potential single parent: donor sperm, or a donor egg. She dismisses the latter because she doesn’t want to be the beneficiary of a poorer woman’s circumstances. Meanwhile, time is ticking away.

Peake is dry-humoured and full of wit, engaging the audience’s sympathies without sliding into sentimentality. We learn artificial hormones she must inject are “produced in a line of genetically modified Chinese hamster ovary cells”, and stored between the butter and the lettuce in the refrigerator. Peake moves from centre stage to the side as emotions wax and wane, leading us to question whether the cherished cultural role of motherhood places an unbearable societal expectation on women. The Woman attempts additional treatments that have no evidence base because, as a fertility consultant informs her, “you’ll want to know you did everything you could”.

Marg Horwell’s set design is minimalist: clinical white walls, which will rise in time, and foundations that will crumble. Stefan Gregory’s simple, spare choral music is woven in here and there to help release emotions. Mostly, though, we are focused on Peake’s performance as she endures more hormone injections and more egg transfers. Is the Woman making her own choices? Why can’t she just love the children of other family members and those of friends and strangers? Is a child really an “inviolable reason for being”?

I was transfixed by Peake, but conscious that I was a privileged reviewer assigned a good stalls seat in an 896-seat proscenium arch theatre. Ideally, this is a play you would program in a more intimate venue, because of the profundity of the personal experience being told. I wondered what audience members seated at the back or above in the dress circle were experiencing of Peake’s craft. I was reminded how equally good Sheridan Harbridge was earlier this year in Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, a one-woman play about sexual assault and the legal fraternity – but that production was in Griffin Theatre Company’s little 105-seat SBW Stables Theatre, where the audience had the benefit of watching Harbridge run the gamut up close.

Sydney Theatre Company has plans to section off the Roslyn Packer Theatre to create a smaller configuration for two plays in 2020. This would seat about 300 to 400 people, drawing the stage out closer to the audience, an arrangement that would have been of benefit to Avalanche: A Love Story. Of course, when you have a popular international performer such as Peake – who has played a lauded Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, and also has a strong television following through roles in Silk, Shameless and Criminal Justice – you want to maximise the potential audience.

Peake is indeed extraordinary in Avalanche, although the script could do with some revision. The early part of the play is a little languid and needs tightening, and the Woman’s eventual road from the perpendicular pronoun of “I” and her individual desires to her acceptance that it takes a village to raise a child – read children, not necessarily hers – seems underdeveloped, even though her dawning realisation is briefly foreshadowed earlier in the play. The contours of following real life lessens the potential drama in the denouement, but the philosophical result comes as a relief.

The presence of the two children occasionally running on stage and playing with a doll’s house as figments of the Woman’s imagination has been criticised elsewhere as awkward, but this staging aspect worked for me. With Peake’s herculean task over the play’s one-and-a-half hours, this diversion provides much-needed variation, while also embodying the desire at the Woman’s centre. Like Leigh, Peake has said she had such an imaginary child: “For me, it was a faceless child that always had dungarees on and was at the bottom of the garden, helping my partner in the shed. A little girl.”

I was curious, though, what the audience response might have been had an actor been introduced to play Paul as well, perhaps in the scene where the Woman discovers he has a new family, including a child. At times, I wondered whether the absence of men on the stage let them off the hook for all that they put women through.

But this is the Woman’s story, and the space that she opens up for the experience of having unborn children hit a nerve with the audience on the night, thanks to Peake’s and Sarks’s finely calibrated and sensitive handling of the material. This Woman knows her own mind.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 14, 2019 as "Heart of glass". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.